Alice Garvey was one of the numerous volunteers on Climate Emergency UK’s Scorecards project, helping to assess councils’ climate action plans to a rigorous marking schema.
Like many of those who volunteered, Alice has a particular interest in local authority climate commitments — in her case, because the information being gathered feeds directly into her work. The Scorecards data informed her doctoral research; but she also found that being part of the team that helped to assemble this data brought extra insights as well.
So what is she working on?
Alice told us: “My PhD considers how different regions of the UK can reduce their emissions in a way that is fair, and that recognises the spatially varied opportunities and opportunity costs of decarbonisation. This is informed by both the need for rapid climate change mitigation at scale, as well as the need to level the UK’s significant regional inequalities.
“As part of my PhD I have been evaluating the potential contribution of Local Authority commitments to the overall achievement of net zero in the UK. This involved calculating the possible emissions reductions in scenarios where councils met their operational and/or area-wide net zero targets.
“The project also involved quantifying the ‘capability’ of different councils to decarbonise, to recognise that some areas face systemic barriers to developing and delivering climate plans.
“I have also undertaken interviews with stakeholders active in climate governance from across regions, sectors and scales of government in the UK. This has allowed me to evaluate how fair current governance arrangements for net zero are perceived to be, particularly from the perspective of councils.”
This is interesting! We wondered what had started Alice on this path of enquiry.
“The UK has exceptional levels of regional inequality, and the changes that are required during the low carbon transition are only likely to exacerbate old, or introduce new, inequalities. I undertook this project to help highlight some of these tensions and trade-offs, to identify the areas that are likely to fall behind without further support, and the kind of support that they may need.
“To do this, I focused on the role of councils as local-regional institutions. It was increasingly evident that councils are ‘expected’ to have a plan to achieve net zero, despite there being no formal requirement for them to do so. Similarly, given longstanding budget cuts to local authorities in the UK, it is doubtful whether many councils have the financial capability to deliver programmes around net zero. I thought that the gap between the rhetoric of local climate action and the lack of formal responsibilities was interesting, and worthy of further exploration.
“For instance, what scale of emissions reductions would the voluntary net zero commitments of councils achieve? What kind of role could or should the local scale play in national decarbonisation? What kinds of policies would enable councils to decarbonise more effectively, and more fairly? What do councils think of these policies? These were all questions I aimed to address in undertaking the research.”
So, the relevance of the Scorecards data is self-evident here. How had Alice come across it?
“I was aware of the Climate Emergency Declarations mapping from CE UK, which provided really good (and novel) oversight of the landscape of local climate commitments. When the Scorecards were getting started I got involved as a climate action plan scoring volunteer.”
And, as it turned out, that was a great way of understanding the data from the inside out.
“The process of undertaking the training, scoring the plans and engaging with CE UK gave me key insight into the workings of local government, and the significant challenges it faces in terms of decarbonisation. It enabled and inspired my use of the Scorecards in my own academic research.
“Though I primarily used the Scorecards for the net zero target dates for councils, they also made me think more critically about the drivers of these commitments and declarations, and the spatial variables that meant some areas were more ambitious than others.”
And how was this understanding applied?
“In my analysis I used the target data to develop scenarios of emissions reductions for each local authority in England if they met their net zero targets (and a scenario if they didn’t). I also used the scores from the Scorecards as part of an indicator framework that suggested how ambitious different councils were being, and compared this to an indicator of ‘capability’. This allowed a comparison of whether more ‘capable’ councils were being more ambitious and vice versa, and identifying regional trends in this.
“The analysis showed that many regions were taking more responsibility for decarbonisation than they were necessarily capable of, whilst other more capable regions were not taking proportionate action. Notably, the picture was more complicated than a simple North-South divide. I published this analysis as an academic paper and as a key part of my PhD.”
These insights seem really valuable, adding to our understanding of the work ahead required for an effective and just transition. How does Alice envisage that they’ll be used?
“I hope that the paper highlights the spatial variation in how local government works, and how this challenges granting any uniform responsibility for delivering net zero. For example, any local statutory responsibility for net zero would need to consider the varied starting points of different councils on their decarbonisation journey. I would also hope that it draws attention to the need for greater direction, greater support for councils from central government, if they are expected to have a formal role in delivering net zero in the UK. Given that delivery of net zero relies on action at all scales, across all regions, this is something that appears increasingly inevitable.
“Though it is only my perspective from the academic side, I would say that many papers do not reach the eyes and ears of decision-makers without further work to translate them. The protocols and language of such publications can limit their consumption to an academic audience.
“This is the reason that the publication of a paper can sometimes be only the beginning of the research process. Translating papers into policy briefs, calls for evidence, presentations, and dissemination through social media, can be key steps in ensuring the research makes its mark in the world outside the university.”
We hope that this research will indeed find its way into such channels, and that the findings will help inform the UK’s vital transition period. You can see Alice’s research in the paper: Climate ambition and respective capabilities: are England’s local emissions targets spatially just? Thanks very much to her for telling us all about it.
We’re always keen to hear how our work is helping inform other projects, so if you’ve been using it for a campaign, research or other purposes, please do get in touch and let us know.
November was another busy month for our Climate programme, with progress on a number of fronts – from the return of an old friend, in the shape of the Council Climate Scorecards; to the development of two new ones, as a result of our prototyping process earlier this year. We’ve also been working hard to share our data and tools with new audiences. Here’s a quick round up:
Constituency data for climate campaigners
As Alexander mentioned in October, we’ve been working on a Beta version of platform that brings together data about MPs, constituencies, and local climate action, as part of a project with The Climate Coalition. The aim is to help campaigners at both national and local levels to understand where to focus their efforts on enabling real local action on climate goals.
This month—thanks to the involvement of not only Struan and Alexander but also Graeme, on loan from our Transparency programme—we’ve made lots of progress, adding the features and importing the datasets we’ll need for testing out the minimum viable product with target users in the New Year. I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months!
Exposing high-emissions local authority contracts
Another service that’s come out of one of our earlier prototyping weeks is ‘Contract Countdown’, which aims to give citizens advance notice of large, high-emissions local authority contracts that might be expiring in six, 12, or more months.
This November, Alexander finished developing the final pieces of a working Alpha version – including the use of real contracts from UK Contracts Finder and the Find A Tender service, and pulling in the details of local authority climate officers and councillors with climate/environment responsibilities (so we could test the idea of helping users contact these representatives).
And Siôn and I have been testing the alpha with target users – including local and national journalists, local authority climate officers and procurement officers, and local climate activists. We aim to continue getting feedback on the Alpha throughout December, and maybe January, after which point we can make a decision on whether to develop and launch a full service later in 2023.
Climate Action Scorecards 2023
Speaking of next year, preparations are already underway for next year’s follow-up to the Council Climate Scorecards project—this month saw Lucas and I work with Climate Emergency UK to design and publish their draft methodology for the assessment that will begin next year.
With CEUK’s assessors now looking at councils’ climate actions, in addition to their plans, we wanted to make it as easy as possible to understand precisely which questions your local authority will be scored on. I think we came up with a nice solution, where you can filter the list of draft questions by your local authority name or postcode, as well as by local authority type.
Sharing our data and tools
In other news, Alex updated our deprivation and urban/rural classification datasets to show relative figures for local authorities and Westminster parliamentary constituencies. We also published a local authorities lookup dataset that makes it easy to convert between the many names and codes used to identify local authorities.
If you want to use these new datasets—or any of our data in fact—Alex runs drop-in office hours on Thursdays and Fridays to talk about just that. We’re also happy to help collect or analyse climate-related data for free, as part of our work on supporting the UK’s climate data ecosystem – you can read more about that here.
Finally, Myf and Siôn in particular have continued to share and talk about our tools, and how people are using them to support local climate action, this month. Highlights include attending the Natural History Consortium’s Communicate conference; giving a hands-on workshop about all of mySociety’s tools for London’s small charities and community groups at Superhighways’ “Where’s The Power In Data” conference; and publishing a really exciting case study about how an officer at Surrey County Council used CAPE to share experiences and best practices with other similar councils elsewhere the UK.
The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol groups emissions sources into “Scopes” as a way of helping organisations understand where in their operations they could reduce emissions:
- Scope 1 covers ‘direct emissions from owned or controlled sources’.
- Scope 2 refers to ‘indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company’.
- Scope 3 includes ‘all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain’.
We’ve been calculating our emissions since 2019. It didn’t take us long to realise—as an entirely remote organisation with no cars, no factories, no offices, and no private jets— that all of our emissions fall under Scope 3.
Beyond that, our calculations show that roughly half of our Scope 3 emissions are as a result of the activity of the services we use – for example, emissions created by the trains we use to travel to visit clients and take part in team meetings, or by the power stations that generate the electricity that feeds the (third-party) datacentres that our websites are served from.
There is plenty of advice out there on how organisations can work to reduce these types of Scope 3 emissions. We’ve already made progress in this regard – asking suppliers for their sustainability policies as part of our procurement process, switching to greener suppliers where possible, even improving the performance of our websites to consume less power.
But it’s the remaining half of our Scope 3 emissions that pose a challenge. These emissions are generated by mySociety’s staff – primarily lighting and heating for our homes and workspaces. Unlike a traditional organisation, we can’t just overhaul the office lighting, or turn down the thermostats – we don’t have an office to make those changes in! Instead, it’s up to each of our employees to do their part.
That’s why we’ve introduced incentives like our Climate Perks programme, which rewards staff with extra time off when they travel to/from holidays via sustainable transport options. We produced a guide for mySociety employees looking to lower their carbon footprint while working from home. But we know these changes are only scratching the surface of what we should be doing.
There isn’t a huge amount of information out there on how organisations can influence emissions generated by remote workers. Where should the balance of power lie in that relationship? How much can organisations require of employees, and how much they can only incentivise and support more sustainable options?
It’s made all the more difficult because each employee’s situation is different – and we’re aware a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work.
So we’re talking about this in the open, to see whether other organisations have faced this issue and come up with a way forward that works for them. As more organisations embrace remote working, this will only become a more common issue. If you’re already doing something in this space, get in touch!
Image: Clay Banks
Last month the project we’ve been supporting Climate Emergency UK on, their Council Climate Plan Scorecards, made a big splash with local and national news outlets.
But that’s not all mySociety’s climate team has been working on – we’ve also been putting effort into making CAPE, our Climate Action Plan Explorer, more useful to council officers and campaigners, through improved emissions data, and ‘features’ – a whole new way of discovering councils with exemplary plans.
Sectoral emissions breakdown
Until recently, CAPE displayed a small amount of emissions data on each council’s page – coming from BEIS’s annual estimates of CO2 emissions within the scope of influence of local authorities:
A key improvement we wanted to make was to better highlight the sources of emissions in a council’s area. The balance of emissions from different sectors (domestic, industrial, commercial, transport, etc) will be different for each council, and will influence their approach to emissions reduction.
Thanks to BEIS funding, we’ve been able to expand our emissions data to cover combined authorities and new 2021 authorities, and we’ve used this to display a new emissions graph on council pages that separates out the emissions of different sectors over time:
Find your council on CAPE today, to see how emissions stack up in your area.
We hope this improved breakdown will help visitors understand the actions their councils are taking, and the scope there is for improvement in the different areas. The graphs can be downloaded and re-used, with the data source and attribution already embedded. Hooray for transparency!
Browse by feature
And there’s more. If you’re interested in seeing, say, all the councils who are doing a good job engaging residents and other stakeholders on their climate plans, or maybe all the councils with a clear plan for upskilling the workforce in the face of climate change, then we’ve got a new feature for you.
Thanks to data from the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, you can now use CAPE to browse councils by ‘features’ we’ve identified, through our research, as being particularly interesting to council officers and campaigners – such as the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, the best communicated plans, and the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.
You can start by visiting the ‘Browse by feature’ page:
Or you can follow the links on any council’s page, to see other councils who also share the same features:
We’re looking to expand our selection of features over time, but we need to make sure these are based on an external dataset that we can import into CAPE. If you have an idea of something new we should include, let us know!
Back in December 2020, we blogged about how we track mySociety’s carbon footprint in order to understand our impact and to monitor whether climate policies we’ve implemented are having the desired effect of reducing our emissions.
In that blog post, we said: ‘having learned of disturbing failings in even the most-recommended [carbon] offsetting services, we are researching where we might be able to make direct payments to mitigate the carbon we produce’. As you can tell from the title of this blog post, we’ve now settled on a different approach, for the time being at least!
After many discussions within our Climate Action Group, we’ve decided for now to purchase carbon offsets from atmosfair.
This blog post aims to explain why we’ve made the decision (for now) to offset all mySociety’s carbon emissions, and how we’re doing it. This is part of our policy of talking openly about our climate actions, in the hope that these types of conversations become more normal and widespread in our sector and beyond — and that we can all learn from each other.
Doing something is better than doing nothing
It’s important to emphasise that our main priority is to reduce mySociety’s carbon footprint, and as you can see over on our Environmental Policy, we’ve set in place various strategies to do this. However, it’s undeniable that our work still produces carbon emissions, and by its very nature, no matter how much we succeed in minimising them, inevitably will continue to do so at some degree.
We don’t want to shrug and say that there’s nothing we can do about these emissions, and we want to emphasise that carbon has a cost, so mySociety’s Climate Action Group (a internal policy group comprising around six staff members) has been (and still is!) on a bit of a learning journey about what to do.
We spent quite a bit of time discussing the pros and cons of offsetting as a concept, and exploring other avenues we could take — more about which, below — and it was beginning to feel like we were letting perfect be the enemy of any progress whatsoever.
So when atmosfair was recommended to us as “historically the most responsible and environmentally conscious provider of offset credits” — their projects are verified by both the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism and Gold Standard — we decided to offset with them for now, while still actively exploring other options.
According to atmosfair, the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations requires considerably more from carbon-offsetting projects than the Gold Standard, including written consent to the project from the government of the host country, liable auditors, on-site audits of each individual project, and recurring audits of each project by an elected body of representatives with equal rights from industrialised and developing countries (the CDM Executive Board).
This additional level of scrutiny on their projects resolved some of the doubts we’d had around offsetting, giving us that extra confidence to purchase from them. Nonetheless, as we’ve previously said we know this is not a perfect solution and we will review our decision on offsetting every year at a minimum, as well as continually keeping an eye out for news articles and innovations in the area.
When we come to review our decision to offset next year, we will take into account whether companies include representatives from the Global South on their board or executive team.
We think this representation is important when implementing offsetting projects directly in the region, as is the practice of many offsetting companies. We have written to atmosfair to ask them if they are considering diversifying their board and/or executive team, and we’re keen to learn about Global South-led carbon offsetting/removal organisations we could support in future.
The winding path to our decision
Over the last year, we considered a few different options for mitigating the carbon our activities produce, including: donating to high impact projects for climate change action; paying for trees to be planted; investing in local community energy organisations in the UK; and purchasing carbon offsets from non-profit certified providers.
What we’ve realised about mitigating carbon is that there really isn’t a ‘perfect’ solution and every idea/scheme seems to have its controversies or counterarguments that, if you’re not climate change experts, are pretty difficult to assess and view comparatively. However, as a group we felt that trying to do something to mitigate our carbon is still better than doing nothing.
- When it came to donating to high impact projects for climate change action, we learned that even organisations like the NewClimate Institute are still figuring out which projects are the most beneficial to support, and we haven’t felt confident enough in their efficacy to support projects that are still very new.
- As for paying for trees to be planted, we’d heard from a few sources that it’s not as effective as other offsetting projects, and takes longer for benefits to arise.
- We loved the idea of investing in local community energy projects in the UK, but as a charity ourselves there are strict legal requirements we must meet when investing charity money, and as a small organisation we don’t currently have the resources to administer that without letting other aspects of our work suffer.
- We had initially decided last year to offset by purchasing credits directly from Gold Standard, but after hearing from investigative journalists at the Dataharvest conference that Gold Standard projects are potentially not reviewed as well as they could be, we decided to have a rethink.
So atmosfair it is for now – which, along with all the safeguards mentioned above, also has the additional appeal of being a nonprofit, like us.
To reiterate, just because we’ve chosen to offset in this way for now, doesn’t mean we will do so forever. On that note, we’re really keen to hear from others about if/how they are mitigating their carbon emissions, so please do get in touch if you have any thoughts you’d like to share. The latest idea we’ve heard of is carbon budgeting, and if you know anything about it we would love to chat.
Image: DFID (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)
As we explore projects where mySociety can help address the climate crisis, as an organisation we’ve also been trying to understand the carbon impact of our existing work.
In 2019 this was 74 tonnes of CO2, and so far in 2020 it’s, as you’d expect in a year that includes several months of lockdown, substantially lower at around 23 tonnes.
It’s proving frustratingly difficult to place these figures in context: even while using their methodology, we can’t accurately compare the outcome to Code for Australia’s given their very different geographical situation and activities; and as a remote organisation where all employees work from home, our footprint is always going to be different from more conventional set-ups. If you think your organisation bears similarities to ours, and you’ve also calculated your emissions, please do let us know!
As for addressing our output, we are pushing a two pronged approach: we’ve already changed staff policies to encourage more sustainable working methods and to ensure a significant reduction in our future emissions; and, currently, having learned of disturbing failings in even the most-recommended offsetting services, we are researching where we might be able to make direct payments to mitigate the carbon we produce.
mySociety 2019 carbon footprint Item Total CO2 (metric tonnes) Percentage of total Flights 40.663 55.31% Accommodation 9.545 12.98% Ground transport 6.198 8.43% Electronics 0.695 0.95% Servers – manufacture 5.120 6.96% Servers – electricity 7.199 9.79% Laptop – manufacture 1.655 2.25% Laptop – electricity 0.475 0.65% Catering 1.967 2.68% Everything else 0.002 0.00% Total 73.56 100.00%
The biggest contribution to carbon expenditure in 2019 was travel. mySociety is a distributed organisation, with staff all around the UK. While on a daily basis that means very little commuting, we do (or did pre-COVID) meet up frequently in teams, and three to four times a year the entire organisation convenes in one place. International research contracts that require onsite interviews can mean long haul plane journeys, and travelling to the international events that we organise requires some air travel as well.
As an organisation we produced 47 tonnes of carbon in travel in 2019, with 75% produced by relatively few longhaul plane flights. The overall contribution of train travel is relatively low despite a large number of journeys (349). There were far fewer domestic plane journeys, but even so they accounted for almost as much carbon as train trips within the UKs.
Mode Journeys (one way) CO2 % C02 Total distance % Total distance Average C02 per journey Long distance plane 24 35,297 75% 73,201 63% 2,941 Short hop plane 31 5,366 11% 11,938 10% 298 Train 349 3,068 7% 24,035 21% 17 UK plane 15 2,156 5% 2,964 3% 270 Car 39 887 2% 1,359 1% 39 Bus 25 36 0% 397 0% 3 Eurostar 9 29 0% 1,830 2% 5 Grand total 492 46,839 100% 115,724 100% 181
While for obvious reasons our 2020 travel costs are much lower, we are keen to avoid a return to the ‘old normal’.
Over the last year, our policy towards ‘short’ plane journeys has changed. When staff do travel, if their destination can be reached within 7.5 hours door-to-door by train (or other forms of sustainable public transport) they should take this option rather than flying, except in mitigating circumstances around safety or accessibility.
Additionally, if staff choose low-carbon holiday travel they are entitled to claim additional annual leave, as part of mySociety’s involvement in the Climate Perks scheme.
Our wider environmental policy can be read on our website.
Image: Providence Doucet
As Mark announced in his first blog post of 2020, we’re currently focusing our work on the climate crisis, with a particular emphasis on how those in power can be held to account over the world’s need to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
But you can’t start challenging others, of course, without ensuring that your own house is in order — which is why we have been working out what we, as an organisation, can be doing to minimise our own impact. A small Climate Action team within mySociety have taken on this task.
The first thing we realised was that it’s not as simple as it seems! It’s a big area; there’s not always consensus on what is genuinely impactful; and it’s easy to get taken up with the small details while losing site of the big picture.
Plus, one obvious hurdle was that we had no idea what our current carbon footprint looks like. That being so, how can we measure whether we are making improvements?
With all those things in mind, we decided on this approach:
- To first concentrate on just a few areas where we believe we’ll be able to make the biggest changes for the better; and
- To spend some time calculating our current carbon emissions in two areas that we know to be significant: that’s travel, and our web servers.
Oh, and one more thing…
We decided to talk about it.
Doing it in public
As you can tell from the above, we’re in no position yet to confidently announce what measures we’re putting in place to minimise our climate impact.
But we believe that by talking in public about our efforts to get to that point, we’ll be able to share what we find, learn from others, and — crucially — help normalise carbon reduction as a topic of conversation within our sector. We’re thinking about this; have you been too?
So over the course of a few blog posts we’ll share where we’ve got to so far, and where we still have questions, starting with a look at our travel.
We’d love it if you could let us know what you’ve been doing, as well, especially if you are a similar organisation to mySociety: small in size, mostly remote, working online with digital services, maybe running events and with some need for travel, both domestic and international.
Image: Markus Spiske