Over the coming weeks, we will take a closer look at Manchester’s concerted aim to become net zero. We will cover each area of the city’s focus and look at how businesses can play their part in achieving ambitious sustainability targets.

Let’s start at the beginning. Greater Manchester has long been at the forefront of urban decarbonization, and its drive towards net zero continues at pace. The city launched its first plan for collective climate action in 2009, which in turn led to the establishment of the Manchester Climate Change Agency and Partnership.

The measures have had a positive impact and the city was able to achieve a demonstrable reduction of 54% in its carb emissions between 2010 and 2020.

However, the city is not one to rest on its laurels and considered that further reductions were possible, especially in light of national and global aims relating to climate change. Notwithstanding its own significant achievements, Manchester declared a climate emergency in July 2019 and committed itself to halving again its carbon emissions within the next five years.

The city does not operate in isolation and accepts that its own direct carbon emissions make up only around 2% of the city’s total. However, the authority does have power and influence over a range of administrative and infrastructure matters, which it is hoped in turn will themselves contribute to the objectives to be achieved.

What is Manchester doing to achieve net zero?

The city has publicly stated the view that, “everyone has a part to play,” in limiting the effects of climate change and has set out its intentions to achieve net zero carbon in its Strategic Outline Business Plan. The Plan, which is bolstered by bespoke climate action plans for each of the authority’s 32 wards, lists a number of arguments in favour of the move, including establishing the city – and North West as a whole – as a leader in clean energy, which it is hoped in turn will attract private sector investment and help deliver wider social benefits, such as reducing fuel poverty.

The Council has identified 48 actions which can be taken – by itself and the city as a whole – to help focus minds, which can be summarised under the following broad topics:

  1. Buildings and energy
  2. Transport and travel
  3. Reducing consumption-based emissions
  4. Carbon storage and sequestration
  5. Emissions savings.

What objectives are being pursued?

Taking each category in turn:

  1. Buildings and energy

The Manchester urban area, and city centre in particular, is a significant estate and magnet for the use of utilities and energy. It is therefore a prime candidate for savings, in terms of the existing built environment as well as future energy usage. For example, the Council has already stated its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions from its estate and streetlighting by 50% by 2025, and a further 50% by 2030, to be achieved through a programme of retrofitting and local energy generation, including solar farms.

That being said, decarbonisation of the built environment is no easy feat and requires consideration at both the new build and retrofit stages of a building’s life.

In respect of future construction, the Council has produced a Buildings and Energy Strategy for its estate and has produced a Manchester Build Standard for future developments.

The above goes hand-in-hand with the retrofit of existing premises, which includes considerations as broad as the provision of (and energy supply to) heating alternatives, installation of energy-efficient fixtures and fittings, increasing thermal comfort and lowering energy bills.

Going forwards, all developments within the Manchester area will need to be mindful of the city’s drive towards net zero, and will have to incorporate sustainable concepts and energy efficiency into their construction proposals, including energy generation and usage. Not only has the Council declared that it will give additional weighting to environmental credentials in future tenders, but companies themselves are becoming more alive to the importance of ESG scores, which are featuring more prominently in pre-contract discussions.

  1. Transport and travel

There is a balance to be struck between improving liveability and ensuring access into the city centre and other areas within the authority’s control through low-cost public transport, and ensuring that such travel and opportunities are provided on solid environmentally friendly credentials.

In connection with its own vehicles, the Council is replacing its fleet with electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, which is estimated will save around 900 tonnes of carbon annually (c.£9.8 million). The move towards electric vehicles is a huge logistical exercise, which will be decades in the transition, but is nonetheless one the Council is eager to pursue.

As laudable as the aim is, there are clear logistical hurdles in the way. For example, not only are there immediate and significant financial costs associated with the decarbonisation of travel, but the technology remains very much in its infancy and at developmental stage. Additionally, were these obstacles to be overcome, there are planning and spatial issues arising in connection with the installation of electric charging points. It remains to be seen what volume of energy generation will be required to realise the objectives, which leads to the question as to how that energy is to be produced in the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to allow green travel to remain a viable alternative.

Whilst there is ongoing discussion around the possible use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel source, to date these exchanges have focussed on haulage and logistics as opposed to domestic travel. Despite its relative cleanliness, the use of hydrogen does come with its own significant risk factors.

  1. Reducing consumption-based emissions

There are a number of measures being taken, at both local and national level, to reduce consumption-based emissions and those arising from supply chains generally. For example, mirroring measures taken by central government, Manchester has indicated its intention to phase out single-use plastics and other non-recyclable products.

The last few years have seen an increasing behavioural and cultural shift towards the circular economy, and away from the take-make-use mentality. The national government has stated its desire to avoid all avoidable waste by 2042 and although this objective will not be achieved overnight, regulations are already in force working towards this aim, such as the successful introduction of the plastic carrier bag charge in 2015, and the prohibition on sale and supply of plastic straws and single-use cutlery.

In addition, the UK has recently seen the introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax and Extended Producer Responsibility regulations, both of which serve to impose waste management cost obligations on businesses for the packaging they generate and handle.  Whilst the purpose of these regulations is to encourage and incentivise durability, repairability and recycling, and move away from disposal as the default option at a product’s end of life, the additional costs generated are almost certainly going to be passed on throughout the supply chain.

Businesses need to start considering now whether any of their produced items can be redesigned using environmentally friendly components, or re-packaged in a way that supports environmental targets.

  1. Carbon storage and sequestration

Manchester is eager to promote carbon storage solutions, and has introduced a Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy which includes an intelligence-led approach to tree and hedge planting.

To date, over 7,000 trees have been planted, as well as five community orchards, with the aim of not only increasing the aesthetic attractiveness of the urban area, but also to best position the city ahead if expected future climate changes. 

  1. Influencing behaviour

The Council is eager to be seen as leading by example and, in turn, influence the behaviour of others. For example, to date it has embedded zero carbon as a priority into its Service Plans, has appointed three Neighbourhood Climate Change Officers, and has arranged both private and public lobbying of the GM Pension Fund to divest from investment in fossil fuels.

That being said, change will not come overnight and there also needs to be a degree of consensus and agreement as to how and in what way cultural changes are expected to occur. There is already discussion within the UK, as well as other countries, regarding the implementation of ’15 minute cities,’ programmable digital currency and, at its extreme, social credit scores. These are highly overt ways of compelling an expected behaviour, but are likely to meet resistance in the event of their unilateral imposition.

At this stage, the Council encourages individuals to take responsible actions – which can also be replicated across businesses – including:


The Combined Authority states that it ‘takes climate change seriously,’ and the objectives it seeks to achieve are to be welcomed. The decarbonisation objectives are not simply to meet Government guidelines, but are also intended to provide a framework for others to follow and to improve the lives of those living and working within Manchester.

However laudable the objectives are – at both a local and national level – they are not without their real and significant obstacles, which do need to be addressed before the aims can be fully realised.  Certainly, the objectives cannot be achieved overnight, in isolation, nor by one city alone. That is not to say that the aims should not be pursued, but they do require a considered and coordinated approach across numerous authorities.

Although many of the details as to the future landscape and specific actions expected of both businesses and individuals remain to be confirmed, the direction of travel is clear.

In the absence of a statutory compulsion to do so, we recommend that businesses undertake an internal review of their systems, production methods and environmental impact as soon as possible, to identify areas where more could perhaps be done. This process will help to position organisations in the most favourable position for further environmental regulations, which are undoubtedly on the horizon, and will also help work towards those collective aims intended to be achieved by the Combined Authority.

In our next blog in the series, we will cover the issue of transport and travel.

Picture: The Tower of Light – Manchester’s low-carbon energy centre (credit: Philip Openshaw)

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