Manchester needs both a vision and a clear pathway, says expert on local authority climate action

What follows is a guest post by James Harries, in response to the draft Zero Carbon Framework 2020-2038 published in March 2019, and the recent documents released by the City Council. James has worked on climate change policy for 17 years, in government and the private sector. He lives in Sale and currently works as an environmental consultant.

Manchester’s draft Climate Change Action Plan 2020-2025 – some reflections

Manchester City Council published their draft Climate Change Action Plan for 2020-2025 recently, and it is due to be discussed on Wednesday 5th February. I like the idea of having a 2020-2025 plan that focuses heavily on the short-term because action over the coming few years will be key to success in meeting the net zero target that Manchester has set itself for 2038. If we don’t make sufficient progress in the next few years, that target could all too easily become out of reach.

But from the work I’ve done on climate emergency planning with various local authorities around the country I’ve found that there are two key words that I keep coming back to – vision and pathway. I know what you’re thinking – that sounds horribly jargon-y. But bear with me, because I think they are really important. Let me explain.

“…there are two key words that I keep coming back to – vision and pathway.”

For any action plan to work, we need to know that all the actions being proposed are (a) the right ones and (b) are ambitious enough to get us to net zero by the target year (in this case 2038). The vision is where we want to get to. So this means describing what net zero means for each sector of the economy. And the pathway is the description of how we get from where we are now, to that vision. And going through this thought process can help in understanding whether the actions that are being proposed in the short-term are the right ones. Let’s look at an example – buildings.

Looking through the draft 2020-2025 plan, and the draft 2038 framework, there is a heavy focus on retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. Retrofit is definitely important but will not deliver net zero. If we think about the vision and pathway for what net zero means for the buildings sector, some key points emerge:

• There need to be no gas boilers in buildings by 2038.
• In 2017 there were around 240,000 residential properties in the City of Manchester. I don’t know how this will change over time but let’s, for sake of argument, say that there will be 250,000 in 2038. None of these can have gas boilers. So what will they have?
• Most will probably have heat pumps. Some might be connected to low carbon heat networks. Some might rely on gas boilers running off bio-methane or even hydrogen.
• For the time being, let’s assume that 75% of the properties in 2038 will need heat pumps. This means over 180,000 homes will need heat pumps. If we assume a straight line between now and 180,000 in 2038, that’ll be around 10,000 a year being installed.
• Of course we wouldn’t expect installation rates to go in a straight line. They will start low (much less than 10,000 a year) and ramp up over time (to much more than 10,000 a year). So there may not be that many heat pumps being installed in the time-frame of the 2020-25 plan. But that doesn’t mean nothing should happen over that period.
• One of the barriers to getting more heat pumps installed is costs – there may need to be a policy to bring down costs and incentivise uptake.
• Another barrier is lack of installers so there needs to be a big training programme.
• Also, we need to remember that the average lifetime of a condensing boiler is 15 years. So in theory, from 2023, no homes should be installing gas boilers (and I’m talking about all homes here, not just new homes).
• So…. The ‘story’ on buildings for the 2020-25 plan might be as follows:
◦ Go heavy on retrofit – as many properties as possible to as high a standard as possible (ideally Passivhaus). This will both reduce emissions but more crucially prepare homes for heat pumps (heat pumps only really work in thermally efficient homes).
◦ In the meantime…
▪ Develop a training programme to get more heat pump installers trained up. The action plan would need to explain how this will be done and funded.
▪ Work on a policy that can, in a few years’ time, incentivise much greater levels of uptake of heat pumps. Maybe commit to a review of policy options and a decision by end of 2020?
▪ Develop materials about heat pumps for homeowners that may be first movers – those with an ability to pay and interested in the environment. Aim for small numbers in the first few years – 50 in 2020, 200 in 2021, 400 in 2022… etc.
◦ Aim that from 2023, no new gas boilers are being installed to replace existing boilers. So sufficient capacity in the installer market will need to be ready by then to meet this demand.

All of this could be debated. It might be that fewer homes will need heat pumps as more will be heated by low carbon heat networks. But then the question is how those heat networks will be developed and funded and so the action plan will need to say something about that (and we need to be focusing on low carbon heat networks that are compatible with net zero, not ones that run off gas boilers).

But despite this, both the draft 2020-2025 plan and the 2038 framework remain very quiet on decarbonisation of heat. Only by thinking through the vision and the pathway can we hope to come up with an action plan that we are confident is hitting all the right areas and driving sufficient ambition to achieve the 2038 target.

“…both the draft 2020-2025 plan and the 2038 framework remain very quiet on decarbonisation of heat.”

This vision and pathway needs to be owned by someone, and that organisation needs to be the Council. That’s not to say that they will be able to do all this themselves – they can’t. And the idea of having a range of different plans developed by different stakeholders could potentially be a good way of driving this forward. But having those plans does not negate the need for a single overarching strategy that has a clear vision and pathway at its core.

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