Edinburgh, emissions and net zero by 2030

Following a number of measures to tackle climate change in the Scottish capital, GB talks to Adam McVey about plans to be a net-zero carbon Capital City by 2030 and creating a cleaner, greener and fairer future in Edinburgh

Government Business (GB): How encouraging is the recent news that council carbon emissions have been reduced by 60 per cent since 2005/06, especially given the aim to be a net-zero carbon Capital City by 2030?

Adam McVey (AM): Since 2005/06, the council’s own carbon emissions have been reduced by just over 60 per cent. This outstrips our aim of a 42 per cent reduction by 2020/21.   

Exceeding our own carbon emissions target ahead of schedule is a major achievement and is hugely encouraging. It shows that the work we are doing to lower emissions and drive towards a net-zero position is having a real positive impact upon the city.

The emissions reduction is largely thanks to major projects of work, such as our state-of-the-art waste reprocessing facilities at Millerhill becoming fully operational in 2019-20.  

The move has helped divert more than 107,000 tonnes of rubbish from landfill turning it instead into a resource which generates energy. The waste processing facility also removes and recycles metals from waste, providing a further environmental benefit.

The greening of the grid and reducing electricity consumption through moves such as upgrading street lighting to make it more energy efficient also helped with cutting emissions.  

Becoming a more sustainable city was a key theme which came from our City Vision 2050 consultation, where we asked people about their hopes and wishes for the future of the city.  

Which is why, after declaring a climate emergency in 2019, we then set ourselves a target of Edinburgh to become a net-zero city by 2030. As well as responding to the calls from our citizens to becoming a more sustainable and climate conscious city, the net-zero goal recognises the significance of the role that climate change will play in our lifetime.

It is an extremely challenging and ambitious target and there is still much more we need to be do if we’re to meet this goal. However, as a city we need to set ourselves this level of ambition, if we are to secure a sustainable future for the people who live and work in Edinburgh.

GB: 2030 is 15 years before Scotland's national net-zero target. How confident are you that this can be achieved within that timescale and what are the next steps to ensure that it happens?

(AM): Across the city, emissions have fallen by 42 per cent since 2000, primarily as a as a result of increasingly decarbonised electricity supply, structural change in the economy, and the gradual adoption of more efficient buildings, vehicles, and businesses.  

However, projections (including economic, population growth and improvements in energy and fuel efficiency) are that city emissions will only fall a further nine per cent (from 2000 levels) by 2030 unless we make real changes, specifically in relation to transport and energy.  

The challenge is significant, but Edinburgh is harnessing the innovation centres in the City, the investment coming into the city which is significant and the understanding of the whole City that this is an issue we all need to face into.  

We’re developing a city-wide 2030 Sustainability Strategy, which we’ll consult on in Spring 2021, and publish in Autumn 2021, ahead of CoP26 coming to Scotland.

Our transport plan and City’s development plan put decarbonising transport and new development front and centre. We’re also progressing sustainable urban regeneration with massive Council-led housing projects like our City’s waterfront as well as utilising innovation through participation in the EITClimate KIC healthy clean cities deep demonstrator programme.  

We are working with Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation to develop a Carbon Scenario Tool. The tool is currently at the development and testing stage. Once fully operational, it will support city-wide and Council-specific emissions foot printing by helping us track our progress towards our net-zero 2030 target.

All these efforts are having a real impact on the ground and if can get solutions implemented on heat in that timescale, I’m very confident we’ll hit our net-zero target.

GB: Emissions from transport make up 31 per cent of emissions in Edinburgh, and 16 per cent of the council’s own transport emissions. What role does the council fleet have to play in meeting climate targets?

(AM): City-wide, the level of change required from the transport sector is substantial, as this is where the smallest reductions have been achieved since 2000. Addressing emissions from the transport sector will require decarbonising infrastructure as well as substantial behaviour change in the way people and goods move around the capital.  

As a council we need to lead by example and while the Council’s own fleet make up a small proportion of emissions, we’re walking the walk and have removed all deisel cars and electrified just under a quarter of our fleet – with the aim of electrifying all cars and vans by 2022/23.  

As a founding signatory to the Edinburgh Climate Compact, we have committed to prioritising sustainable and active travel choices by our workforces and limiting the need to travel for work wherever possible.  

As a large organisation in the city, we have a responsibility to lead by example, and to catalyse behaviour change.  

There are some changes we’re making that have broader impacts that just within our organisation and through our City Mobility Plan, we’ve already started looking at the way we travel around Edinburgh. Flagship projects such as the tram extension to Newhaven, developing a Low Emission Zone and reducing the carbon footprint of public transport, along with changes to roads and pavements will make it easier for people to move around the city in a way which is good for their health as well as the environment.  

GB: In what ways has the ongoing coronavirus pandemic provided an opportunity for Edinburgh to move towards a cleaner, greener and fairer future?

(AM): In 2018, we asked Edinburgh residents what they wanted their city to be like in 2050, and they told us. They wanted their city to be welcoming, thriving, fair and pioneering.

Since then, we’ve faced – and indeed are still facing – one of the biggest challenges of our lifetimes, and we know that there is much to do to support the city to adapt and renew.   

Instead of rebuilding the Edinburgh in the same way, we must go forward recognising that behaviours of residents have changed, and we must meet the expectations they have of us.  

This vision could not be formed without input from Edinburgh’s public, partners and stakeholders and it cannot be delivered without them. The same can be said for our recovery from Covid. We must work with city partners as one team: building a better Edinburgh, together.  

Covid-19 has presented us, in common with other leading global cities, with a window in which some of this work can be – and already is being – accelerated.

Our agenda before Covid of addressing poverty and sustainability hasn’t changed. Sustainable and inclusive growth remains our focus and, unlike previous economic hits, the City doesn’t want to ‘recover’ with another race to the bottom. We need to hold firm on our long-term goals if we’re to meet the expectations of our citizens.  

We have already welcomed the recommendations from the Edinburgh Climate Commission’s Forward Faster Together report – which included ensuring a green recovery from covid-19. In parallel we’ve endorsed the recommendations of Edinburgh’s poverty commission and will take both forward together.  

GB: The pandemic recovery will require input, not only from politicians and the city's leaders, but also from businesses. How can you make sure that businesses in the capital also have a green agenda for operations in the next few years?

(AM): The Council will publish our sustainability plan in the coming months, and we’re reviewing our economy strategy and will be consulting our city stakeholders. Edinburgh’s approach is mirroring some other leading cities with an approach similar to the donut model.  

Business has done an amazing job in Edinburgh through Covid and will continue to adapt to the changing environment around us. Business will need help with some of the big-ticket issues like decarbonising deliveries, office blocks etc. but there is still an enormous amount of willingness to embrace the challenge.  

Many of the actions needed to reduce carbon also save money and businesses understand that their medium- and long-term future is reliant on adapting to meet their environmental obligations. Our climate commission and the Council will be doing specific sectoral work to help business make the changes needed but it’s really encouraging that so many businesses in the City are on board with this agenda, they recognise the need to act if we’re to address the climate crisis.

Adam McVey is Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, and Convener of the Policy and Sustainability Committee. He is also the Vice Chair of the Edinburgh Climate Commission.