Central Beds Council – on the right track to net zero carbon?

The current pandemic has presented numerous challenges at a local, national and global level. Whatever you think about the government’s actions in relation to the virus, it has been heartening to see how communities have pulled together and looked out for one another. However, with climate change an even larger crisis looms, and as well as global actions it will again require a coordinated approach at all levels of society and government, both across the UK and Central Bedfordshire. There will be no vaccine for the looming climate disaster and the time to find a cure is fast running out.

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement’s aim is to limit global temperature rise this century to below 2° Centigrade and look to pursue a lower increase of 1.5° Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. As the graph below shows, we have already reached a 1.1°C rise in temperature.

While governments across the world have spoken at great length about reducing CO2 emissions and taken the first steps in achieving them, they are some way from getting on the necessary path. The infographic below shows where we are with current policies and where we will be when achieving the current pledges and targets. As you can see, even if we meet our current pledges, we will miss the 2° C target by some distance.

Even if the rise was limited to 2° C or less it will have a huge global impact. This warming will not occur equally across the globe, but will be amplified in the polar regions, and this will lead to ice melt and subsequent sea level rise. Once we get to this level of warming then positive feedback loops come into play, such as carbon and methane release from thawing permafrost and the acidification of oceans. I cover this in a previous blog here which sets out the impact of global temperature rises from 1°- 6° C. What seems clear is that we are going to need to exceed targets, rather than just meet them.

Where are we now in Central Bedfordshire?

Information below is from Central Bedfordshire Council’s (CBC) Baseline Review published in April 2020, CBCs Climate Change Strategy 2010 and the GOV.UK website. Links to these sources are available at the bottom of this blog.

  • It is estimated the Central Bedfordshire area emitted 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2018.
  • In addition to the 23,000 homes already allocated or that have planning permission 20,000 new homes are planned across Central Bedfordshire in the next 20 years.
  • Emissions of CO2 across Central Bedfordshire was estimated at 5.79 tonnes per person in 2018.
  • Population of Central Bedfordshire 289,000 (2019 estimate).
  • 10 Electric Vehicle (EV) charging points have been installed by CBC to date.
  • There are 163,000 cars registered across Central Bedfordshire.
  • 1,283 plug in electric vehicles are registered across Central Bedfordshire.
  • CBC has pledged to support a carbon neutral Central Bedfordshire area by 2030.
  • £46 million is to be spent by CBC on road maintenance and improvements in 2020/21.
  • £6.4 million to be spent by CBC on sustainability/climate action projects in 2020/21.
  • Currently 9% of people across Central Bedfordshire commute by public transport, 2% by cycle and 8% by walking.
  • The council planted 31,268 trees between 2014 and 2019.
  • While the council met its 2015 target of a 35% reduction in their own emissions it failed to meet its 60% target for CO2 emissions reduction by 2020, set in their 2010 Climate Change Strategy.
  • In 2010 CBC had a four year plan to replace all street lights with LEDs.

To achieve net zero carbon emissions across the CBC area by 2030 the council would have to reduce carbon emissions by 26.5% a year for the next 10 years and reduce ‘per person’ CO2 emissions from 5.79 tonnes to 0.24 tonnes per year. This figure isn’t zero as the 70,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions will be offset. You can find out more about carbon offsetting here.

How do Central Bedfordshire Council plan to achieve this?

Following on from their baseline review completed in April 2020, Central Bedfordshire Council put together a Sustainability Plan which was published in September 2020. You can download the full report here.

Firstly, there does seem to be a change in emphasis between the baseline review, which pledges the Council to support both the council and area in becoming carbon neutral by 2030 (stated in the Executive Summary of the Baseline review) and the Sustainability Plan, published only five months later, which appears to aspire to just a 40% reduction in the area’s emissions by 2030. I’m not suggesting that the council ever committed to achieving carbon neutrality across the area by 2030, but it will be actions not words that take us away from the brink of climate disaster.

A number of items from their Sustainability Plan stand out. While their aim to plant 1 million trees in the area by 2030 should be applauded, it should be noted that they only planted 31,268 trees between 2014 and 2019. Residential buildings account for 27% of CO2 emissions across Central Bedfordshire, second only to emissions created by road transport (39%).

The Future Homes Standard is due to come into force in 2025, committing a 75% reduction in carbon emissions for new homes. However, until that time, under the 2008 Planning and Energy Act, the council are permitted to require compliance with energy efficiency standards that exceed the requirements of building regulations. From what I can see they are only mandating a small 10% reduction in carbon emissions from developers of new homes. This lack of ambition is highlighted in the baseline review, so it seems odd that this target has not been raised. The council must be more ambitious. It should also be noted that it is estimated that 85% of the housing stock across Central Bedfordshire in 2050 will comprise of houses already standing today, so retro-fitting to ensure reductions in carbon emissions will need to take place on a large scale. This will need to be a mixture of local and government spending. Problems with the current ‘Green Homes Grant’ don’t bode well for the future.

What is the plan for buses?

In short, there is no plan. Look for CBC’s Public Transport Strategy online and you’ll see it’s ‘currently under development’ and has been for a considerable time. In perhaps the most glaring omission from the Sustainability Plan, buses and public transport are almost non-existent in the council’s 10 year plan to reduce carbon emissions. Buses (other than a vague reference to bus shelter provision) only get one mention in the whole document, and even that is a heavily caveated reference to electric buses, involving lobbying for their provision if ‘commercially viable’.

While experts in the field of transport (such as the Campaign for Better Transport) press for improved bus services, particularly in rural areas, Central Bedfordshire seems to ignore them entirely. This is a particular concern as road transport accounts for 39% of the area’s total CO2 emissions. Of course buses aren’t the answer on their own, but they should at least form part of the solution. This wouldn’t just be of benefit to the environment, but it will reduce social isolation in what is a rural council area.

The baseline review describes how the council currently has very little control over buses in the area. This is true, but this is due to them resolutely refusing to enter into franchising or enhanced partnership working with local private bus operators. You can find out more about these partnerships here. If CBC don’t get involved in partnerships with bus operators they will be unlikely to exert any influence over their switch to low emission buses, or the provision of bus services that benefit the communities across Central Bedfordshire.

What this means is that Central Bedfordshire is a virtual desert for buses and has resulted in them failing to be a viable alternative to the car for both commuters and leisure travellers.

What is the role for bikes?

Central Bedfordshire Council have an ambitious plan to increase commuting by cycling to 10% by 2023 and 26% by 2030. Considering that the current level of commuting by bike is at 2% and has remained flat since their 2011 Cycling Plan was published, the council will have to invest very quickly in this area. A modal shift from the car to the bike will not occur unless there is a perception that journeys can be made safely and that bikes will be safe when they are stored. CBC have not installed any dedicated (separated from vehicular traffic) cycle lanes in the last 10 years and seem content for muddy bridleways to act as cycle routes. While this may be perfectly adequate for a weekend thrash, it is not suitable for a journey to work. Dedicated cycle lanes will also encourage children to use bikes to and from school, putting in place carbon reduction behaviours at a young age. Unless the council address the issues of safety, suitability and security, their plans for a quarter of commuters to shift to bikes are unlikely to take place.

What is the role for Electric Vehicles?

Road transport accounts for 39% of Central Bedfordshire’s CO2 emissions. There are 317,000 cars registered in the central Bedfordshire area. Of these 1,283 are plug in electric cars or light goods vehicles. With new cars powered wholly by petrol and diesel being banned from sale in the UK from 2030, there will be a push to environmentally friendlier Electric vehicles (EV’s).

However, CBC are aiming to install only 100-150 Charging Points across Central Bedfordshire over the next 10 years. They have drawn this figure from research conducted by a charity which is based on a theoretical town of 100,000 residents. This research estimated that this ‘town’ would require 44 charging points by 2030 and therefore CBC have worked out that proportionally, Central Bedfordshire would need 132 charging points. This totally ignores the fact that Central Bedfordshire cannot be compared to a town, being rural in nature which encourages greater car use, and as previously mentioned already has excessive emissions due to road transport. This target seems extremely unambitious and unlikely to promote the switchover to EVs or satisfy the demand for charging points by 2030.

Further, from what I can gather the council are budgeting for 7KW chargers, which are far less efficient in terms of charging speeds than 22KW chargers which cost only a little more and are also eligible for government grants. Slower charging speeds lead to longer charging times and driver tolerance for waiting for an available charger is likely to drop as EV’s are rolled out. Below is a 2018 estimate of installation costs for different categories of charger. I understand that these costs have dropped considerably since then. While different speeds of charger are needed for different scenarios the ‘Plugging the Gap’ report suggests that 85% of chargers should be ‘fast’ i.e. 22KW or quicker. Councils should plan for a mix of speeds of chargers, not just the cheapest option.

The council shouldn’t rely on the private sector to take up the slack and they should offer incentives such as free or at least cheaper parking for EV users. Currently EV users using CBC EV chargers must also purchase a car parking ticket. Parking may be a ‘cash cow’ for councils, but it won’t encourage a shift towards low emission cars.

The infographic below shows the distribution of EV chargers by region as of July 2020. You can see that our region is poorly covered in comparison to others and statistics from the Department for Transport show that the CBC area lags behind even further, at only 13.2 public charging devices per 100,000 people.

The nature of EV charging is also likely to change by 2030 as more people take up electric vehicles, including those with no off-street parking facility, and this will further increase demand for public charging points.

Taking the above into account, it would appear that CBC’s stated target to install 100-150 chargers underestimates what the requirements will be by 2030 in a rural council area. A lack of chargers, apart from being inconvenient, can lead to ‘range anxiety’ which is a factor in electric vehicle purchases.

Conclusion

It is clear that a great deal of work has gone into the Sustainability Plan and it provides a template as to how Central Bedfordshire will achieve carbon neutrality. However, the evidence suggests that even if we achieve current planned reductions we will miss the 2° C target and we must strive to achieve even more at a faster rate. This will of course require central as well as local government intervention, but there are additional steps that a local council could take. The pandemic has of course altered our travel patterns and it remains to be seen how long term this impact will be, but the council’s disregard for buses in the area is inexplicable. My view is that CBC must take the opportunities available to enter into partnerships or franchising with local bus operators and services must be provided at a frequency and times at which they become a viable alternative for commuters and leisure users.

To encourage an increase in cycling to the levels they are aiming for the council must take steps to make it safe, suitable and secure. The council’s past record on this has been poor and there will need be a very rapid change in their approach otherwise they will miss their 2023 target of 10% of commuters cycling to work. I believe that dedicated cycle lanes must be provided to encourage a shift away from the car; where cycle routes go off road they must be adequately surfaced and well lit, and transport and community hubs at journey ends must have secure storage facilities.

The current price of EV’s means that they are beyond the budget of many, but we should expect this to change as technology improves and manufacturers begin to phase out petrol and diesel cars in the lead up to the 2030 ban. CBC’s current plans for publicly available charging points look very unambitious in a region that already has fewer charging points than the rest of the UK. The rural nature of the council area means that residents rely on the car more than in urban areas and the council should provide a mix of charger speeds for differing needs and to encourage the take up of EV vehicles. My view is that CBC should increase the numbers of EV charging points they plan to install across the area, and ensure that they are publicly available in every village and at every community hub across Central Bedfordshire.

The looming climate disaster presents many challenges. While it requires a global approach, we all have our part to play. Local councils will be a vital cog in the wheel as we strive to reduce global warming to manageable levels. The transformation required in our day to day lives is considerable, the consequences of not achieving the current targets are grave.

Julian Vaughan – 25th February 2021

Sources and further reading:

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