Net-zero cities: Leeds's mission to be carbon neutral by 2030

edie's new mini-series exploring how local authorities are collaborating with businesses to actuate community-centred sustainability schemes on the road to net-zero emissions continues, this time exploring how Leeds plans to become a net-zero city by 2030.

The Council continued its leadership in the city’s carbon reduction efforts by launching a new strategy to reduce its own emissions by 55% by 2025

The Council continued its leadership in the city’s carbon reduction efforts by launching a new strategy to reduce its own emissions by 55% by 2025

Councils have been at the forefront of the UK’s fight against climate change; often the first bodies to announce ambitious environmental targets in an effort to encourage businesses and central government to follow suit. Indeed, local authorities were the first to declare individual ‘climate emergencies’ before the Conservative Government and devolved assemblies made the move.

Much like Bristol, Nottingham and Oxford (click the links to read about their net-zero journeys) Leeds has developed a commitment to respond to the climate emergency by publicly committing to reach net-zero carbon emissions to assist with the UK Government’s 2050 target for the entire country.

Leeds City Council declared a climate emergency in March 2019, outlining an ambition to “work towards” a net-zero carbon city by 2030 as a result. A report was developed and taken to the Council’s Executive Board in April which spurred the launch of a “Climate Conservation” to engage with residents on a committed action plan.

That work was informed by the Leeds Climate Change Commission, formed three years ago in conjunction with the University of Leeds, and the council has revealed that it received almost 8,000 responses as part of the “conversation”. A citizens’ jury was established by the Commission to create recommendations from the responses, which soon delivered 12 ranked recommendations for the city to work towards.

The Council continued its leadership in the city’s carbon reduction efforts by launching a new strategy to reduce its own emissions by 55% by 2025, from 70,000 to 31,000 tonnes.

“The partnership we have with the Commission is very unique," Cllr. Lisa Mulherin, executive member for climate change, transport and sustainable development tells edie. “We’re trying to foster collaboration on projects that will help reduce carbon emissions and improve climate resilience, particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 floods – that drove home the need to act.

“We’re working with the top 10 carbon contributors in the city, most of which are public sector organisations like the hospitals and the university and there are conversations taking place about how the council can support them to reduce their carbon footprints. We’ve already delivered a significant reduction in carbon emissions within the council, but it will require a substantial increase in efforts over the next five years to help us reach our new targets.”

The council’s action plan commits to reducing its carbon footprint by more than 30,000 tonnes through the procurement of 100% renewable electricity, all while reducing “key sources” of emissions through switching to LED street lighting, rationalising an energy efficiency programme which reduces emissions from council buildings by a further 40% and electrifying it's fleet. The lighting scheme is already in full flow, with a four-year £25m investment programme set to save 7,050 tonnes of CO2e per annum.

On a city level, wider decarbonisation proposals have been broken down into the areas of transport; housing; industry; consumption and food; waste energy; biodiversity and landscape.

Transport focus

Transport is the largest source of emissions in the city at 36% and the city has created a £270m low-carbon “Leeds Public Transport Investment Programme” which will be completed by 2021. The programme seeks to develop bus priority corridors, new cycle facilities and expanding the bus and rail park & ride sites in the city. Bus operators will also be incentivised to invest in low-emission vehicles. All of this will complement a Clean Air Zone, to be introduced this summer, to help reduce air pollution alongside emissions.

In line with a wider West Yorkshire Transport plan, the council is aiming to implement measures to double bus patronage, deliver a 10% increase in walking and a 300% increase in cycling in the wider area. The combination of these targets coupled with technology innovation and population growth in the city could help reduce transport-related emissions by 27%.

“We are the largest city without an Urban Mass Transit System so we are working to try and encourage people to switch from private car use to public transport, but this is more difficult when you don’t have a readymade alternative,” Mulherin says.

“We are working with bus operators in the city and working on the highways programme to improve bus lanes in the city and working with the bus providers to switch to greener vehicles.”

The city already had more than 100 miles of cycle network, but the council is focusing heavily on low-carbon vehicles for its own fleet. Leeds City Council already operates the largest local government electric vehicle (EV) fleet in the UK, which consists of more than 90 EVs. It is anticipated that the fleet will soon comprise of 232 EVs, which will primarily be charged at council sites to ensure they are powered by renewables.

The council is also taking action to reduce the travel undertaken by staff in personal vehicles which could contribute to a further 1,262-tonne reduction in CO2 permissions annually.

The city’s approach to housing is what sets it apart from other regions transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Residential emissions account for 63% of building emissions and there are approximately 345,000 households in Leeds, which 18% of the city’s total building stock.

Council housing is currently rated at C for energy efficiency, compared to a D rating for private-owned housing in the city. District heating and heat pump schemes are promoting low-carbon heat and the council is committing to increase the EPC rating for its housing building programmes from C to B. A “Leeds Standard” will result in an 80% reduction in emissions and £500 saving in energy costs compared to the average home.

However, it is estimated that £800m will be needed to reach a minimum of a C rating across all stock by 2030. The Council has already secured more than £10m in funding for external wall insulation on its housing stock and a further £5m to roll out domestic solar, with the ability to store energy.

Climate innovation district

But, with a commitment in place to add 20,000 new homes within an expanded city centre while minimising heating requirements and car usage, the challenge in this area is profound.

Mulherin notes the City “climate innovation district” development as the exemplar of what is possible in building low-carbon housing.

In 2017, Urban developer Citu unveiled the first glimpses of a timber-framed housing system that is up to ten times more energy efficient than standard UK homes, with production practices also able to reduce the carbon footprint of construction by 24,000 tonnes annually.

More than 500 homes were built on-site at Citu’s Climate Innovation District in Leeds, which acts as the first low-carbon neighbourhood in the UK.

Citu’s founder Chris Thompson says: “The Citu Home, and the wider Climate Innovation District, represent a pioneering new approach to house building in this country which is one of the biggest causes of carbon emissions.

Funding future

The £10m external wall insulation funding was secured with £5.28m in funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Understandably Brexit, and the wider Government policy focus, creates uncertainty in the city’s ability to secure funding to innovate.

Mulherin notes that the last few bids for the latest round of ERDF funding is being sent off and that while the UK Government has promised to provide finance for green projects, the council will be “putting pressure on [the Government] to deliver, particularly when they talk about levelling up regions to fulfil their potential”.

The city is committed to its net-zero target as part of a just transition which, according to the action plan, “does not result in people being penalised by the shift to the zero-carbon economy and in particular protects those on low incomes from adverse effects”. For Mulherin, this requires all parts of the city to make the low-carbon transition.

"We need long-term sustainable investment for transport and infrastructure, but also while enabling communities, councils and landlords to make the transition to retrofit homes to make them fuel-efficient and reduce carbon emissions as part of a just transition,” she adds.

Matt Mace



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