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Climate change and social justice in Greenwich: why targets matterBy Simon Pirani

By Simon Pirani

The Greener Greenwich Community Network aims for our borough to achieve its decarbonisation target, in a way that makes life better for us all.

Lofty ambitions! But what does it mean here and now? In this blog post I try to answer some questions about the target, and what we can all do about it.

What is the target? Who worked it out?

The borough of Greenwich declared a “climate emergency” in 2019, and adopted the policy of becoming “carbon neutral” by 2030. Like many local authorities, and even the UK parliament, Greenwich felt moved to act by a huge wave of protest about the lack of action on climate change by groups such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion.

The reasoning in the council’s declaration was sound: climate breakdown is already causing “serious damage around the world”; “all governments (national, regional and local) have a duty to act” – and local government “should not wait for national governments to change their policies”. Greenwich would create a local partnership to face the issue, and “use its lobbying power” to campaign at London and national level.

Inaction, the declaration stated, would lead to “higher energy and food costs”, and “increases in social injustice and inequality”. A draft of the council’s Carbon Neutral Plan (CNP) warned that, globally, rising temperatures would mean “more extreme weather and rising sea levels” that would lead to “growing risks to fresh water supplies, food security, economic prosperity and biodiversity”.

All this justifies the borough’s aim of being “carbon neutral”, i.e. of cutting the amount of greenhouse gases being added to the atmosphere to zero.

The economy works globally, and it is no simple matter to decide which company, or government, or household, is responsible for which greenhouse gas emissions, and how they can be cut.

The council commissioned a report from Element Energy, a consultancy, on what it could do to achieve this goal. That report formed the basis for the Carbon Neutral Plan formally adopted by the council in November 2021.

What areas does the target cover?

The Carbon Neutral Plan focuses on cutting greenhouse gas emissions from activities over which the council has some influence, mainly: housing (both publicly-owned and private) and other buildings in the borough; heat and electricity supply; transport; industry and other economic activity; and waste disposal.

An important area not covered by the council’s plan is so-called “embedded emissions” in products and services delivered in the borough. If a house is built in Greenwich using steel bars from China and building materials from the north of England, the emissions put into the atmosphere when producing those items is not included. Nor are the emissions “embedded” in imported stuff we all buy in shops.

Air travel by Greenwich residents is also left out of the borough’s calculations.

Can you explain the target as a number?

It is a set of numbers. Greenhouse gas emissions are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Carbon dioxide is the main cause of global warming, but other gases including methane and nitrous oxide pack even more of a punch; researchers translate those amounts into CO2e.

In the 2010s, the emissions that the Greenwich plan covers ran at between 770,000 and 1.2 million tonnes of CO2e per year.[1] (Greenwich works out its sums using a baseline of 859,000 tonnes of CO2e in 2015.) In 2020, these Greenwich emissions fell to about 720,000 tonnes CO2e, but in 2021 bounced back again to about the same level as 2019 (787,000 tonnes, the government’s statisticians reckon).

Greenwich’s target is to realise a “2030 maximum ambition scenario”, according to which emissions covered by its plan would fall to 197,000 tonnes per year, by 2030. (This is shown on page 41 of the council’s Carbon Neutral Plan First Year Review, and on page 13 of the draft plan.)

Element Energy’s 2019 report includes an even more ambitious scenario, “2030 maximum ambition, with full electricity grid decarbonisation”, which would take the emissions covered by the plan to about 90,000 tonnes per year, by 2030.

This assumes that electricity in Greenwich is generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar – which would mean rapid change to the electricity network, an area of the economy over which the council has no direct control.

Hang on. You are talking about cutting emissions to 197,000 tonnes, or 90,000 tonnes, per year, by 2030. But that’s not zero!

No, it’s not. The council has said it may use “offsetting” in order to bridge that gap: this is a scheme under which companies and state bodies continue to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and pay someone else somewhere supposedly to reduce theirs by the same amount.[2]

Spending council resources on offsetting schemes would be a disastrous mistake, in my view, as an energy researcher and Greenwich resident.

This is not just a local issue. Nationally and internationally, companies and politicians who are desperate to avoid dealing with the damage done by the fossil-fuel-intensive economy use offsetting as a way to postpone taking effective action.

The very phrase “net zero” is used by political leaders who have postponed effective action on climate, to falsely claim that vast amounts of greenhouses gases can be sucked from the atmosphere in future. This is condemned as irresponsible by a wide range of charities and campaign groups, and by climate scientists and biologists.

So I hope the council will reconsider its approach to offsetting in the light of these warnings.

The Greener Greenwich Community Network says the targets need working on for other reasons. What are these?

One obvious problem is that the council appears not to have taken account of the way that the fossil-fuel-intensive economy bounced back after the Covid pandemic.

In its CNP First Year Review (page 40), the council flags up the 6% year-on-year reduction in emissions in 2020. This was “better than the baseline emissions scenario”, the review says, and “if borough emissions continue to drop as they have done in 2020, then we will continue to outperform the maximum ambition scenario until 2026”.

But they will not continue to drop that way, and we already know that. This is wishful thinking.

In Greenwich, like everywhere else, economic activity shot up again in 2021, when the worst of the pandemic had passed. Emissions shot up again with it. The government’s statistics show that Greenwich emissions rose by 9.5% year-on-year.[3]

But in the CNP First Year Review (page 41), the estimates for the “forecast reduction” and the “maximum ambition scenario” in 2021 are shown to be lower than 2020, instead of higher. The “forecast reduction” is more than one-fifth lower than the borough’s actual emissions were in 2021.[4]

The CNP Second Year Review, due out in January 2024, will have to make a mammoth correction, in my view.

This is not a quibble about numbers. There is an international trend for powerful governments and corporations to set themselves inadequate emissions reduction targets, and then to fail to meet them.

This so-called “emissions gap” is “more like an emissions canyon – a canyon littered with broken promises, broken lives, and broken records”, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said this month.

We do not want Greenwich to be part of this trend.

Apart from the council’s wrong assessment of the post-pandemic economy, there is a larger problem: the Carbon Neutral Plan target does not line up with commitments proposed to local authorities by climate scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester.

The council wrongly claims on its web site that its Carbon Neutral Plan is “consistent with science-based targets for Greenwich” worked out by the Tyndall centre. Unfortunately, it is not.

The Tyndall centre’s Setting Climate Commitments for Greenwich report uses a top-down method, to work out what the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change means for the borough.

The Tyndall researchers worked out a “global carbon budget” – the amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted into the atmosphere while avoiding the most catastrophic results of climate change – and divided it up between nations. They limited rich countries’ shares, on the basis of the social justice principles agreed on at the Paris conference (see below). They then took the UK’s share, and apportioned it to local authorities, assuming that each area would have to cut emissions at a similar rate.

Greenwich has a “carbon budget” for the years 2020-2100 of 5.3 million tonnes, the Tyndall researchers say. The five-year “budgets” they have set for the borough envisage that almost all of this would be used up by 2042, and that for the rest of the century Greenwich would emit just 200,000 tonnes of CO2e, less than a quarter of what it currently emits every year.

If Greenwich stuck to the Tyndall centre’s “carbon budgets”, its emissions in the 12 years 2019- 2030 would be 4.88 million tonnes. This is because the Tyndall centre researchers recommend a sharp, early cut in emissions as the most effective way of protecting humanity from dangerous climate change.

By contrast, the council’s “maximum emissions scenario” would use up 5.7 million tonnes in 2019-2030 – that is, more than the Tyndall centre’s total 21st century budget of 5.3 million tonnes. The “forecast reduction” scenario would use up almost 5.8 million tonnes[5] – and, don’t forget, that scenario will have to be revised upwards, as explained above.

This problem of delaying action, and hoping to make bigger emissions cuts at a later date, is not limited to Greenwich. It is a problem with UK and other governments. But we have to deal with it.

Here is a graph, showing the actual level of emissions up to now, as measured by government statistics (red line), LEGGI statistics (grey), and my estimates for 2022-23 (purple). It also shows targets based on the Tyndall centre’s carbon budgets (green), and the scenarios for 2030 in the council’s paperwork: a “baseline”, i.e. assuming no change of policy (black); “forecast reduction” (grey); “maximum ambition” scenario (yellow) and “maximum ambition with full electricity grid decarbonisation” (blue).

Wow. So you are saying that our problems in Greenwich are part of a larger trend.

Yes. The Tyndall centre “carbon budgets” are set based on two principles. 1. Social justice between rich and poor nations, the so called “equity principles” of the Paris Agreement, are “explicitly and quantitatively applied”. 2. No removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, or carbon offsets, are included.

Neither the UK government’s targets, nor those proposed by the Climate Change Committee, nor the targets set by the Mayor of London – all of which are taken into account when the Greenwich target was set – start from these principles.

I repeat: this is not a quibble about numbers. A paper by some of the Tyndall scientists in Nature journal, which examined climate targets used by the UK and Swedish governments, concluded that they were half as ambitious as they need to be.

Do we have to sort out the targets before doing anything effective to cut emissions?

No. Not at all. In my view it’s very important to set targets that make sense, that align with social justice principles, and that steer clear of all the hypocrisy associated with “net zero”. But we already know the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions that the council can influence, and the main ways to reduce those emissions.

And as the Element Energy report stated four years ago (on page 5): to achieve even Greenwich’s own target, the borough would need to implement “a comprehensive suite of highly ambitious policies”, “by 2023 at the very latest”. Such deadlines are flying by.

The biggest source of emissions in Greenwich is buildings, and, in particular, the supply of heat and electricity to them. The council’s CNP First Year Review includes (page 47) an estimate that retrofitting the whole housing stock, including privately owned properties, to conserve heat and reduce bills, would cost more than £2.9 billion. Element Energy’s proposals suggest that greater emissions cuts could be achieved from installing heat pumps. A comprehensive plan is beyond urgent.

The second largest source of emissions in Greenwich is transport. The borough has set an ambitious target of reducing the vehicle-kilometres driven by cars and taxis by 45% – but so far not stated either what emissions cut would be expected from this, or how that reduction can be achieved.

This graph shows the different sectors that have produced greenhouse gas emissions in Greenwich between 2005 and 2021.

Reducing emissions, in a way that complements social justice aims, is not easy. But it can be done. Assessing the problem honestly, setting a clear target, and mapping a path towards it, is the first step.

□ Reducing emissions, and doing so in a socially just way, is what the Greener Greenwich Community Network is about. If you have other questions you want answered, or you want to be involved, email us on

[1] Emissions are recorded by the London Energy and Greenhouse Gas Inventory (LEGGI) that Greenwich uses , and also in government statistics gathered by the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (one of the successors to the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which was broken up in 2023). The two use different methods and come up with slightly, but not substantially, different numbers [2] The Element Energy report (page 18) warned of “uncertainty” surrounding offsetting’s effectiveness, but suggested that Greenwich consider offsets with UK partners. The council’s CNP First Year Review (pages 41 and 54) mentions offsetting as an option still under consideration [3] Greenwich council uses the LEGGI emissions statistics, rather than the government data. The LEGGI figures for 2021 emissions are not yet available, but they are sure also to reflect the post-pandemic rebound. (The difference between Greenwich emissions counted by LEGGI, and those counted by the government, is minimal: the gap was less than 4% of the total in 2014-18, falling to less than 1% in 2019-20) [4] The “forecast reduction” in 2021 looks like 620,000 tonnes CO2e on the graph on page 41 of the CNP First Year Review. The underlying figures have not been published. I have asked the council (early November) to send them to me, but not yet received them. This figure is 21.1% lower than the 787,700 tonnes CO2e of Greenwich emissions in 2021, as counted by the government [5] My estimates, from the graph on page 41 of the CNP First Year Report

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