1. Economics
April 1, 2016

Which British cities have the highest carbon emissions?

By Jonn Elledge

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

There’s a complicated relationship between cities and carbon emissions. People in bigger cities tend to consume more resources; that tends to mean higher emissions, too.

But there’s a flipside. Bigger cities also tend to be more densely populated, and have more people who don’t need cars. So the average Londoner, who takes the tube half the time and walks the rest, will probably have a smaller carbon footprint than the residents of, say, Chipping Norton, who drive everywhere.

So what does this mean for which Britain’s cities? Well ignore everything I just said because it’s actually kind of irrelevant. Here are the most recent figures we have, dating from 2013:

Tons of emission per capita in major British cities. Source: Centre for Cities.


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There’s no pithy explanation for much of this distribution. Those at the bottom end of the league table tend to be south eastern cities, where a large chunk of the population commute by train – but that correlation is weak, at best. (Northern Bradford has low emissions; southern Aldershot has high emissions.) And the bigger British cities are, frankly, all over the shop.

The really striking thing about that graph, though, is at the top. Most British cities are in a fairly tight bunch, from 4.2 tons per capita in Chatham to 8.3 in Newport. That seems like a pretty narrow range, considering the diversity of the cities on that list.

But then, there’s those top two. In Swansea (26.7 tons) and Middlesbrough (29.2), carbon emissions per capita are a good four times higher than the average British city. So what’s going on?

Heavy industry, seems to be the answer – or at least, two specific forms of heavy industry.

Teesside – the Middlesbrough conurbation – is on the edge of one of England’s largest historic coal fields, and by our count has at least four active fossil fuel power stations still on the go. That seems rather a lot for a conurbation of under 400,000. In other words, Middlesbrough’s pollution seems to be high partly because it’s pumping so much energy into the National Grid. The city is polluting on our behalf.

The other component of Middlesbrough’s high emissions seems to be something that it has in common with Swansea – or at least, did back in 2013. That year, the Corus steel plant was still in operation. That, according to the Guardian, was one of the most polluting industrial plants in Europe. It closed last year, though – so it’s possible those figures have come down since.

The Swansea conurbation, meanwhile, includes Port Talbot – the future of whose steelworks hangs in the balance as I write. Its owner, Tata, is looking to close the plant. If no buyer can be found, it seems likely Swansea’s emissions will be significantly lower in future. It’s hard to see that as unalloyed good news right now.

Here’s an interactive map of the emissions figures. Hover over a city to get the data.

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