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Cost-free carbon emissions reduction

02 December 2014

Cities could make a significant contribution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions at zero net cost, according to a recent report.

The study of the cities of Leeds, Kolkata (India), Lima (Peru), Johor Bahru (Malaysia) and Palembang (Indonesia) found that a number of cost-effective, low-carbon developments could cut global energy-related emissions by more than a third.

The authors of the report, published by the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the University of Leeds and London School of Economics and Political Science, find that these developments have a payback period of just two years, on average. After this payback period, the developments would continue to deliver savings and the returns could be reinvested in other low-carbon developments in the city.

The report's lead author, Professor Andrew Gouldson of the University of Bristol, says a low-carbon economy is a "no-brainer" from an economic point of view, as well as an environmental one.

“By implementing a handful of quick-fixes, cities could deliver carbon savings of up to 34 percent of global energy-related emissions at no net cost," he claims. "City councils and investors have everything to gain from investing in a low-carbon future.”

The report finds that, based on economic factors alone, investment in low-carbon urban development should be favourable for investors and decision-makers in cities around the world. Indeed, it suggests that investment in the early stages of the low-carbon transition can appeal to local decision-makers and investors on direct, short-term economic grounds.

This indicates that climate mitigation ought to feature prominently in economic development strategies as well as in the environment and sustainability strategies that are often more peripheral to, and less influential in, city-scale decision-making.

For instance, low-carbon investment of £11.6bn in Leeds City Region – which includes the local authority districts of Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Craven, Harrogate, Kirklees, Leeds, Selby, Wakefield and York – could deliver annual emission reductions of 21.8 percent in 2025 relative to projected levels, and at no net cost to the region.

The report finds that residential buildings could be responsible for almost a third of the Leeds City Region’s total emissions reductions by 2025. Investment of £1.1bn in the domestic sector would create savings of £400m each year, paying back investment within three years and saving billions thereafter.

For Leeds residents, this could see the widespread introduction of mini-wind turbines with a feed-in tariff, biomass boilers with a renewable heat incentive and solid wall insulation.

Lima, which on Monday (December 1) began hosting the COP20 climate talks, could reduce its carbon emissions by 22.4 percent relative to 2025 projected levels at no net cost to the city.

The report suggests that investment in Lima’s congested transport system could realistically deliver significant emissions reductions and savings for the city. This could mean the widespread introduction of modern Combis – the large privately-owned minibuses that accounted for approximately 20 percent of trips in Lima in 2014. Congestion tolls and policies to promote cycling could also serve as a “flagship for climate action”, as demonstrated by cities such as London.

How global warming links to carbon emissions
Meanwhile, researchers from three UK universities have derived the first theoretical equation to demonstrate that global warming is a direct result of the build-up of carbon emissions since the late 1800s when man-made carbon emissions began. The results are in accord with previous data from climate models.

The theoretical equation, developed by researchers from the universities of Southampton, Bristol and Liverpool, reveals the complex relationship between carbon dioxide levels and the ocean system.  Burning fossil fuels increases atmospheric carbon dioxide levels leading to global warming and the greenhouse effect, which is partly offset by the oceans taking in both heat and carbon.

The results show every million-million tonnes of carbon emitted will generate one degree Celsius of global warming. They also show that the build-up of carbon emitted over the last 200 years will then last for many centuries to millennia, even if carbon emissions are subsequently phased out.

The results also reveal that surface warming is related to the total amount of carbon emitted from fossil fuels, with little change over time as ocean carbon and changes in heat uptake almost cancel each other out.

Dr Phil Goodwin, from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, said the analysis highlights the nearly irreversible nature of carbon emissions for global warming. "Once carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere the warming effect will last many centuries, even after much of the carbon has been absorbed by the ocean,” he warns.

“We cannot wait until after significant anthropogenic warming has occurred to reduce carbon emissions and hope the climate goes back to normal by itself, it won’t.”

Given the complexity of the climate system, Professor Ric Williams, Chair in Ocean Sciences at the University of Liverpool’s School of Environmental Sciences says it was a surprise to find out how simple the relationship is between global warming and how much carbon we emit. 

“The ocean turns out to be crucial by taking up both heat and carbon, which lead to nearly compensating effects in how surface warming depends on carbon emissions," he says. “These findings potentially address the most important finding from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last year, which is how global warming increases with how much carbon we emit.

“In terms of wider policy implications, our theory reiterates a simple message: the more cumulative carbon emissions are allowed to increase, the more global surface warming will also increase. This policy implication reinforces the need to develop carbon capture techniques to limit the warming for the next generations.”

Les Hunt

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