Blog Post

London’s ‘green’ coronavirus recovery

For the coronavirus recovery to be the green recovery that the climate emergency demands, London needs to move far faster. Where should the city start?

Before the pandemic the need to tackle climate change was becoming a settled public policy priority in both London and across the UK. In 2019 the UK Parliament, the Mayor of London and most London councils declared a Climate Emergency. But managing the COVID-19 crisis and stoking an economic recovery from it has reduced political urgency for climate action. Yet the climate challenge grows with every day of inaction, and London should be leading the way.

Thanks to Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, humanity was starting to take seriously the challenge of halting climate change. Some argue that coronavirus has granted us a temporary respite for the need to act on climate. Most of us have stopped flying, and, at least in the first lockdown, our streets emptied of cars. But we must guard against complacency. Somehow we need to muster the political energy to transition from this crisis into a new emergency footing, one that allows us to take the urgent measures needed to curb our carbon emissions.

In November 2020, the government published its ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ which was tentatively welcomed by environmental groups, with some concern about its funding and delivery. The Plan called for increasing ambition in areas including accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles, green public transport, cycling and walking, and greener buildings.

For London the need for climate action is as pressing as anywhere, and arguably more so. London is a cluster of nine million people living moderately densely together and producing carbon emissions way beyond our planetary limits. 1.3 million Londoners live and work in areas with flood risk. London is also a key node of the global economy. And its role stretches beyond the mere economic. London has a long been a locus for moral leadership: Suffragettes; Anti-Apartheid; Jubilee Debt. What people think and do in London can influence the world.

For the coronavirus recovery to be the green recovery that the climate emergency demands, London needs to move far faster in dealing with our remaining dependence on fossil fuels. And this will mean radical changes for most Londoners, especially in two areas: transport and heating, which between them produce around half of London’s CO2 emissions. As the energy grid decarbonises these are the two areas where the remaining transition looks likely to be the most difficult. We have yet to embrace, at scale, clean alternatives to petrol/diesel-fuelled cars and commercial vehicles, or gas-fired heating. Yet to stand a chance of meeting our obligations internationally as agreed in Paris, and nationally – net-zero by 2050 – we must.

First, transport. We need to re-imagine our transport without damaging, and perhaps enhancing, the capital’s kineticism. We need fresh thinking about how to prioritise our transport investment and regulation. Old transport planning hierarchies need to be rethought, new technologies embraced, and priorities for public space redrawn. Zero-emission vehicles, from lorries down to e-bikes and e-scooters, should be encouraged – and emitting ones stood down, or barred (the recent tender for a London e-scooter trial is to be welcomed). Charging infrastructure needs huge public investment and coordination. Public transport will continue its vital role, but should encourage more multi-modality. For example, Transport for London could allow bikes on buses to encourage active travel, and broaden to encompass emergent shared forms, like on-demand buses. And our conceptions of public space, and how we prioritise our street space needs shaking up. The emergency Streetspace programme has helpful here, as has the surge in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods that has followed.

Second, heating. Heating in London is hugely dependent on gas. We will have to find ways to both use less energy, and switch to electricity. At scale. Both in our homes, and in our workplaces and in industry. This ‘degasification’ is highly achievable. Radical insulation approaches are emerging and can even work for London’s old building stock. And on heating, electric air-source heat pumps are already available, and with a volume market costs could become much more affordable. So, the best new homes and workplaces can already be net zero, and our older buildings could get close to net zero too, with the right focus and investment. Yet policies designed to encourage these changes are not having the necessary impact, especially so in London.

Zooming out, there are plenty of positives. London’s comparative carbon intensity is pretty good. We produce around 3.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, lower than the UK average largely due to our extensive tube, train, cycle lane and bus networks. And there have been great advances in renewable energy with solar and wind energy and battery storage becoming cheaper and more efficient. Combined, these are making electricity the clean energy choice.

But to pull off this transition will take an extraordinary collective effort. We can take inspiration from the radical changes the pandemic has forced upon us. And unlike many other challenges we already know most of the answers. As William Gibson said ‘the future is already here,  it is just unevenly spread’.

It’s with this in mind that we’d like to organise a conference looking at the policies and innovations needed to keep the momentum going on our ambitious decarbonisation plans. To find out more about partnership opportunities, please contact Kate Spiliopoulos.

Note: This blog post was first published on 16 April 2020 and has been updated to account for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter