Decarbonising Greater Cambridge: assessing progress

Carbon Neutral Cambridge has just published an assessment of the progress made by local organisations, households, individuals and councils in decarbonising Greater Cambridge.

Our assessment is based on data recently published by The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for 2015-2020, and the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) intermediate targets towards the legally binding goal of Net Zero emissions by 2050.  

Many would say that 2050 is too late, because it relies on the hope that we’ll be able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the second half of this century, which is a very risky assumption.  And climate change seems to be happening faster than expected, increasing the risks of catastrophic impacts, even before 2050.

The CCC’s targets and BEIS’ data are based on the emissions created within the territory, so they ignore the emissions associated with making and transporting the things that we import (e.g. food, clothes, electronics, cars etc), and international travel. As these “consumption” based emissions could easily double our emissions, we need to be reducing them too.

Nevertheless, the CCC’s targets are the absolute legal minimum that we ought to be achieving.

The BEIS data breaks down the territorial emissions for each region into 8 Sectors: Transport, Domestic, Public sector, Commercial, Industrial, Agriculture, Land-use and Waste.  When we applied the CCC’s targets to the mix of sectors in Greater Cambridge, it implied that we need to be reducing emissions by 5-6% a year.

So how have we been doing?

It is encouraging that Cambridge has been doing quite well, compared to the CCC targets. Over the 5 years, 2015-2020, work by the council, local organisations and households has been reducing greenhouse gas emissions at an average of 7% a year.

However, in South Cambs the decarbonisation rate has been just 4% a year.  If it was a school report, it would say “Could do better”

South Cambs’ emissions are higher than in Cambridge, in part due to the higher population (161,000 vs Cambridge’s 125,000) However, even on a per-person basis emissions are higher and falling more slowly.

For both Cambridge and South Cambs, the biggest beneficial effect has been from the decarbonisation of electricity. This has been driven by the removal of coal from UK power generation, and the rise of renewables. This has decreased the carbon emissions from each kWh of electricity by an impressive 60% in just 5 years.

In Cambridge City, emissions from travel on A road and minor roads are both now falling steadily. This is probably due to a steady switch from private car use to public transport, car clubs, cycling and walking. Taxis within the city are increasingly switching to eVs. This is encouraging, and shows some of what can be done.

However emissions from the major roads in South Cambs (which include the M11, A14, A428 and A11) have changed little during the period, although there has been a slight improvement since 2017, probably due to the introduction of Euro6 diesel in 2015. There was also a more significant drop in 2020 because of Covid-19.

We can take heart that we ARE making progress in decarbonising Greater Cambridge, but as the impacts of climate change become ever more worrying, it’s clear that we all need to do more.

This would be much easier if we had supportive government policy. Nevertheless, as David Attenborough said at the end of Frozen Planet II, where “there are things that we can do, we must”.

Read our full report and recommendations here