Leeds Low Carbon Futures | Brussels Blog

Leeds Low Carbon Futures

posted by on 10th Jan 2012

I’m sure the The Economics of Low Carbon Cities, the City-Scale Mini-Stern Review, has been commissioned with the best of intentions but it is distraction because it follows an approach that is too little to late. It says

Low carbon measures can deliver multiple benefits for cities, enabling them to meet carbon reduction targets whilst at the same time growing the economy, creating jobs, reducing exposure to increasing energy costs and securing a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

The Problems:

The first problem is that the “carbon reduction targets” are woefully inadequate to do anything soon enough to stop dangerous climate change and the report does little to show the rest of the world how to take the problem seriously.

The second they is that they aspire to growing the economy as the means of creating jobs. They should consider the work economist Jeff Rubin, who points out that this century will see only a few exceptional years of growth because of the high cost of oil. He doesn’t claim oil will run out just that growth and globalisation will stall because of its high price.

The third is the assumption that energy efficiency in the absence of price changes can cut carbon emissions. There are several studies that show that energy efficiency measures alone are not particularly successful because of the rebound effect. An example of the rebound effect is when houses are insulated and instead of saving on the fuel bills householders turn up the thermostat. There are cases where this leads to increases in emissions.

The report should be congratulated for advocating the supply of lower carbon electricity.


The first problem may have no solution. It may be too late already. The news from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is very worrying the frozen methane from shallow Arctic seas may already be dissociating in an irreversible process that will see the end of the world as we know it. Let’s hope not.

But methane from the Arctic sea is just one climate feedback that has not been taken into account by those that set the carbon reduction targets. Otherfeedbacks include Arctic permafrost, wildfires and insect infestation of major forests. If these feedbacks were to be taken into account the threshold at which dangerous climate change occurs is reduced. But they are not in the climate models used to calculate the targets. (See Committee on Climate Change discounts important science.)

Lowering the targets to take account of the science makes the job harder but not as hard as persuading the rest of the world to cut their carbon emissions sufficiently. What we should do is develop an ultra low or even negative carbon lifestyle that is desirable enough for the rest of the world to follow. This is, of course, a long-shot but it’s the best shot we’ve got. These modest proposals from this Mini-Stern Review do not come close.

A starting point would be to banish the phrase “economic growth” from our vocabulary. It has become debased. At a recent meeting in Sheffield the Greek MEP, Kriton Arsenis, pointed out that the terrible forest fires in Greece in 2007 were an example of economic growth. A car crash is economic growth: It creates employment and lots of cash changing hands. Instead of growth we should concentrate on employment and the environment.

Growth is seen as the diving force for creating jobs. If environmental concerns must be muted when they conflict with job creation. Taxes on carbon emissions are criticised on these grounds, the latest example being the protestations from the airlines that taxing the carbon emissions of aircraft will retrain jobs in their industry. So it will but if we took the taxes on carbon and used them to cut the cost of employing labour in the economy as a whole total employment would increase. So much better than burning the forests.

Because it is such a damaged concept let’s retire “economic growth” and “GWP” and talk in terms that affect people more directly: jobs, food, happiness and the survival of the good things in the world. Leeds region cannot directly impose a carbon tax to be used to create jobs – that is for national government – but there are decisions that could have the some effect. For example, if Leeds had a congestion charge and managed to spend the income on small-is-beautiful enterprises in the city centre, it would encourage lower carbon lifestyles.

Another encouragement to low carbon living would actually be to tell Leeds citizen’s the terrifying truth about climate change and how individual lifestyles impact on the total picture. There is a vast industry encouraging us to be green but there is little information about important details. Many retailers have toyed with the idea of carbon footprints. Tesco have put carbon footprint information on some of their products but the Wall Street Journal reports:

Ms. Symonds adds that Tesco carefully picked for its initial labels products whose carbon footprints likely wouldn’t shock consumers. The retailer purposely avoided labeling the carbon footprint of beef, for instance, because beef’s carbon footprint is significantly higher than that of many other foods.
If Tesco had presented consumers “with a message that was so counterintuitive and difficult,” Ms. Symonds says, “we might have found it difficult to take carbon labeling forward.”

Leeds should commission further work to informs residents of the impacts of their everyday living, perhaps a better version of the Green Ration Book that is driven by a panel of well informed citizens which is free to evaluate – and criticise – official sources. (For doubts about official approaches to carbon counting see Buried by Defra?)

Similar concerns can be raised about schemes that rely on energy efficiency alone. Professor Swales says:

We have undertaken econometric work on the elasticity of demand for household energy in the UK. We get values of around 0.4 for the short run and over 1 for the long-run. This means that you get backfire in the long run for energy efficiency but that tax would be effective in reducing household energy use. These are provisional results at the moment.

The phrase “backfire in the long run for energy efficiency” means that energy efficiency measures lead to an increase in energy use unless they are accompanied by a rise in price. If this were to be through taxation we could create jobs by cutting the cost of employing labour.(See Tax carbon: Subsidise jobs.)

Geoff Beacon

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