Exeter on track to miss net zero target

Exeter will miss its target to become a carbon neutral city by 2030 unless emissions reduce significantly, a new report by the city council’s CEO reveals.

The building sector has the highest emissions (35 per cent) followed by power (24 per cent) and transport (22 per cent). Levels from each of the remaining sectors are seven per cent or less.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

The council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and pledged to work towards creating a net zero city by 2030. The target is 20 years in advance of the 2050 target set nationally.

Since January, its chief executive Karime Hassan has also been working on the city’s carbon neutral goal at Exeter City Futures, a community interest company.

Exeter currently produces just under half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent) per year, according to a report by Mr Hassan to a council scrutiny committee, a reduction of around a third since 2008.

The report outlines how reaching the target by 2030 requires a “much greater reduction” in emissions and says significant private investment will be needed, well in excess of what the council can afford on its own.

The drop in emissions in Exeter since 2008, when they were estimated at 717 thousand tonnes of CO2, is due to ‘grid decarbonisation’ – moving away from fossil fuels like coal – which has taken place outside Exeter.

However, the current level of reducing emissions because of grid decarbonisation will not continue. Even if it did, Exeter would still be producing 291,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2030 based on current trends – “nowhere near net zero,” the report says.

Local sector reductions in buildings and transport emissions have failed to even meet previous targets set in 2007, with a lack of progress in these areas described as “particularly concerning.”

The building sector has the highest emissions (35 per cent) followed by power (24 per cent) and transport (22 per cent). Levels from each of the remaining sectors are seven per cent or less.

The document says: “Growth in the city is leading to increases in emissions and the decarbonisation of electricity cannot continue to make up for the shortfalls in these sectors. The city needs to make significant progress in buildings and transport to deliver net zero.”

Emissions from Exeter’s buildings have “hardly changed since 2008,” it adds, with almost half of the city’s homes estimated to still need more loft insulation.

Exeter has a target of 42,200 homes to be powered by heat pumps by 2030, as gas boilers are phased out, but only 449 homes currently have such a heating system.

Emissions from transport remain “stubbornly high,” the report says, stating that huge increases in electric car ownership, charging points and active travel (walking and cycling) will be needed to meet the 2030 target.

Reductions in waste emissions have also failed to materialise, with levels described as being “similar over the past four years.”

The UK’s carbon budget – a set of national targets enshrined in law – includes increasing recycling rates to 70 per cent by 2030. However, Exeter is way off meeting this target.

Just 28 per cent of the city’s waste was recycled in 2020/21 – a figure slammed as “appalling” earlier this year by one councillor who criticised the lack of a universal food waste collection service.

Kerbside collections are being be rolled out, but not particularly quickly. Currently Alphington only has access to the service, meaning most of the city’s unwanted food ends up in general rubbish. Exeter residents still have to take glass to bottle banks if they want them to be recycled, unlike most of Devon.

The council blames vehicle and driver shortages for the delays.

In the report, a senior officer says the carbon reduction findings explain “in stark terms the challenges to deliver net zero. From a financial point of view, the scale of investment required is far in excess of that which the council can afford.”

They added the authority “set aside £1 million a year ago in order to provide some resource to the project, but this in itself is clearly a tiny fraction of what is required.”

Despite this, the report concludes it is “broadly understood” what needs to be done to make Exeter carbon neutral. This includes replacing all gas boilers with heat pumps, replacing all fossil fuel cars with electric ones, producing more renewable energy from extra solar panels, retrofitting homes, improving recycling rates and “massively” increasing cycling.

“There are plenty of political, financial, legal, technical and supply chain reasons why this may be extremely challenging to deliver by 2030,” it warns, but adds there will be “opportunities for the local economy, investment, labour demand, and innovation in technology.”