Concerns have been raised that Scottish local authorities are “massively underestimating” their carbon footprints, after an external review of one council’s climate pollution saw its reported emissions quadruple in one year.
East Renfrewshire Council’s emissions rose from 14,971 tonnes of carbon dioxide under the old reporting model in 2019-20, to 59,988 tonnes in 2020-21. The increase came after the authority hired environmental consultants, Aether and Accelar Ltd, to calculate its contribution to the climate crisis.
Currently, there is no standard system for reporting scope 3 emissions, and councils can report these as they see fit. They can also choose not to report on them.
The Scottish Government told The Ferret that “new guidance” had been published for councils in 2021 which would “over time” see councils reporting their supply chain emissions “as fully as possible”.
Activists and politicians called for the type of assessment carried out by East Renfrewshire to be required of all councils. One campaigner pointed out that organisations cannot reduce their contribution to the climate crisis if they “are not measuring most of it”.
The findings came after The Ferret analysed all 32 local authorities’ climate reports since the last council elections in 2017. These reports outline all the emissions produced by a council’s services.
The environmental consultants also recalculated East Renfrewshire’s emissions for 2019-20, when nearly 70,000 tonnes of emissions were produced across the council area. They suggested this year was taken as a baseline, because the Covid-19 caused a temporary decrease in pollution in 2020-21.
The new 2019-20 figures were the equivalent of each of the council area’s 95,000 residents taking a round the world flight. To offset these emissions each year, trees would have to be planted over an area the size of 228 football pitches.
Based on the more detailed analysis of its pollution,The Ferret calculated that East Renfrewshire Council produced the equivalent of 630kg of carbon dioxide for each person in the council area in 2020-21.
The two island councils produced 860kg and 800kg per person they served, respectively. The biggest source of emissions for both Shetland and Orkney councils was from fuel to power their ferry fleets.
The majority of East Renfrewshire’s emissions – 57 per cent in 2020-21 – came from procurement. This includes emissions produced from producing the building materials it uses, the food it supplies, and from the disposal of waste.
A report on the consultants’ findings said this showed there was “the potential for significant emissions reductions” through changes to procurement.
Discussions have been ongoing within the Scottish Government’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport committee about the role councils play in reducing the country’s emissions since the start of 2022.
In January, council leaders complained to the committee that there was “little or no guidance, support, or funding for councils to act on area-wide emissions”.
Environmental Standards Scotland – a new independent body set up to ensure the effectiveness of environmental law – is also currently in the early stages of an investigation into the effectiveness of climate change reporting by local authorities.
The Ferret reported last year that Scots councils’ plans to cut carbon pollution are “deeply insufficient” and will cause Scotland to keep missing its climate targets.
Mark Ruskell, climate spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, argued that councils needed to take a “consistent approach” to climate reporting, in order to “build a good national picture of where and how problems arise”.
“Councils have a duty to play a part in tackling the climate emergency and reduce emissions in their area, but to do so they absolutely must have good data about where targets are being missed so they can act to remedy the situation” Ruskell said.
“Scottish Greens aim to move councils to put their climate responsibilities front and centre when it comes to planning, business support and transport policies, and we will require robust data to do that.”
Councils are massively underestimating their real climate impacts
Dr Richard Dixon, an environmental consultant and the former director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said that East Renfrewshire council deserved credit for “looking at their climate impact so comprehensively”.
Dixon said: “You can’t properly start to reduce your contribution to climate change if you aren’t measuring most of it. Councils have a big impact beyond simply the energy they use in their buildings and for their vehicles.
“These figures show that most councils are massively underestimating their real climate impacts, particularly when it comes to the carbon embedded in the things they buy. This kind of full assessment should be required rather than being voluntary as it is currently.”
East Renfrewshire Council told The Ferret that the “new approach” taken by the consultants helped to “highlight the wider impact” of its operations.
A spokesperson said: “Including supply chain emissions in our carbon baseline assessment, which had not previously been done, shows the impact of processing, manufacturing and transporting the goods and services that we rely upon to operate.
“Having this insight will allow us to have a stronger focus on making reductions in the emissions that arise from our supply chain, which will be important as we take forward our Get to Zero plans.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Legislation on climate change reporting was strengthened in 2020. It now requires public bodies, where applicable, to report their targets for reducing indirect greenhouse gas emissions and how the body is aligning its spending with its emissions reduction targets.
“New guidance published in 2021 supports the aim of reporting the entire carbon footprint of public bodies and includes extensive guidance on reporting scope 3 emissions and sustainable procurement.
“Over time, public bodies will be expected to report on their scope 3 emissions as fully as possible.”
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