Uncovering blind spots in urban carbon management: the role of consumption-based carbon accounting in Bristol, UK

The rapid urbanisation of the twentieth century, along with the spread of high-consumption urban lifestyles, has led to cities becoming the dominant drivers of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing these impacts is crucial, but production-based frameworks of carbon measurement and mitigation—which encompass only a limited part of cities’ carbon footprints—are much more developed and widely applied than consumption-based approaches that consider the embedded carbon effectively imported into a city. Frequently, therefore, cities are left blind to the importance of their wider consumption-related climate impacts, while at the same time left lacking effective tools to reduce them. To explore the relevance of these issues, we implement methodologies for assessing production- and consumption-based emissions at the city-level and estimate the associated emissions trajectories for Bristol, a major UK city, from 2000 to 2035. We develop mitigation scenarios targeted at reducing the former, considering potential energy, carbon and financial savings in each case. We then compare these mitigation potentials with local government ambitions and Bristol’s consumption-based emissions trajectory. Our results suggest that the city’s consumption-based emissions are three times the production-based emissions, largely due to the impacts of imported food and drink. We find that low-carbon investments of circa £3 billion could reduce production-based emissions by 25% in 2035. However, we also find that this represents <10% of Bristol’s forecast consumption-based emissions for 2035 and is approximately equal to the mitigation achievable by eliminating the city’s current levels of food waste. Such observations suggest that incorporating consumption-based emission statistics into cities’ accounting and decision-making processes could uncover largely unrecognised opportunities for mitigation that are likely to be essential for achieving deep decarbonisation.

Regional Environmental Change, 17, pp.1467-1478, June 2017