We’re not saying that UK cities should quite aim for the plans of Gwanggyo, South Korea…

By Gary Hartley

A little while back, I noticed a story on the BBC website headlined ‘Belfast is UK’s least energy efficient city.’

As with the nature of a news report, it expands a bit:

While other cities fell by over 12%, Belfast managed just 4%. The city actually increased its emissions at one stage. Even Greater London, which was just one place above Belfast, managed a 10% reduction.

Thing is, the story had found me on a cheery day, so made me wonder which city was the most energy efficient. Turned out no-one reported that, and indeed the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) had gone with the Belfast angle in their own press release.

Of course, news values have always been more or less the same – bad news reads well. The optimist usually has to find the full report, so that I did.

This stuff’s important – the top 20 biggest UK cities, which the Hotting Up report looks at, are responsible for over a fifth of the nation’s overall energy consumption and emissions, and the population shift towards cities on a worldwide-scale means there’s got to be some real focus on making cities work sustainably.

But here’s the more hopeful angle, particularly if you’re from the West Midlands: the best performing of the top 20 in terms of overall and per capita reductions in emissions were Coventry and Wolverhampton.

In terms of energy use, the greatest overall and per capita reductions were to be found in Cardiff, Stoke, Wolverhampton and Hull. Between 2005 and 2009, the Top 20 cities reduced their total emissions by about 12.5% overall, and energy consumption by about 7.5%.

Of course, there are the high performers, and the less so. This is no cover-up of someone else’s research, so the poorest performers in terms of total emissions reductions were Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh, London and Belfast.

But then there are also the factors behind the numbers to consider. The UK is nothing if not diverse – and the source of emissions varied wildly across the country. Some cities like Leicester, Manchester and Hull have a relatively greater proportion of industrial and commercial emissions and others, such as Cardiff and Newcastle, a higher proportion coming from transport.

The report does make pains to explain these skews:

These differences reflect such factors as travel patterns, industrial and business composition of cities and the age and relative energy efficiency of housing stock, and possibly also other factors such as area, population density and wealth.

Belfast, the apparent ‘bad guys’ of the piece, are undoubtedly the big domestic emitters, with, 47% of the city’s emissions coming from homes. But then, in mitigation, the relative inefficiency of the housing stock is a big factor here. This, of course needs to be tackled in a concerted way, and the RICS report has some suggestions to those lagging – pardon the pun – behind.

Partnerships, making use of the green investment bank and other finance offers, bold leadership, mandatory local carbon budgets and spreading the word more effectively about what works where are all cited as key (they’re obviously expanded upon in a big way in the full report), and there’s some examples of how local financing and partnership work can be done successfully, to boot.

There’s certainly a way to get to the big good news story for Belfast and the other UK cities – now it’s all about the will.