Planning for the Future - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

How is London addressing the climate emergency?

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By Martha Grekos, Director (Barrister) at Martha Grekos Legal Consultancy Limited

Introduction

Covid-19 has been seen by many as an opportunity to transform our way of life and act in a more environmentally conscious way. America now has a President-Elect who is very pro clean energy, wants to deliver net zero by 2050 and has pledged to recommit America to the Paris Agreement. Even our own Prime Minister has put tackling climate change at the top of his priority list and COP26 is being hosted in Glasgow come November 2021.

London has been one of the first global cities to commit to become carbon neutral by 2050. For example, in December 2018 the GLA published ‘Zero Carbon London: a 1.5oC compatible plan’ for London to reduce its emissions by 60% on 1990 levels by 2030 and by nearly 80% by 2040, to become zero carbon by 2050. There is also the Mayor of London’s ‘London Environment Strategy’ that was published in May 2018, which sets a vision to achieve zero carbon targets, including a roadmap for zero carbon transport, a target to increase green infrastructure, producing clean energy and reducing consumption, making London a zero waste city and transitioning to a low-carbon circular economy. London is also officially designated as the world’s first National Park City, has also signed the C40 Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration, committing to ensure all new buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2030, and every existing building operates at net zero carbon by 2050. 27 of the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London Corporation have also declared a climate emergency, some adopting borough-wide targets to reach net zero by 2030 or 2050 and committing to reduce emissions on their estates.

Even London’s built environment industry has demonstrated commitment to the cause: the UK Green Building Council has led on a UK wide initiative aimed at the construction and property industry to achieve net zero with its ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings Definition Framework ‘ published in April 2019; in June 2019 RIBA Council voted to join the global declaration of an environment and climate emergency by setting out actions and targets in its ‘RIBA 2030 Challenge’ for chartered practices; the London Energy Transformation Initiative published ‘Climate Emergency Design Guide’. Even some companies have made pledges relating to climate emergency.

This is therefore the time to ask:

  • Where is the built environment profession in the fight against the climate emergency given that there seems to be a gap between the climate commitments and the practical implications and what are the measures that need to be prioritised to achieve net zero carbon in London?

Report

A report, ‘Net Zero London’, just released by the New London Architecture (NLA) looked at this very question.

The NLA surveyed its membership, made up of businesses spanning the whole built environment, to gain an insight into where the profession is currently in the fight against the climate emergency and the measures that need to be prioritised in London. The survey contains responses from 178 built environment professionals, from 105 different organisations across the private and public sectors.

The findings show that London has made good progress so far in reducing carbon emissions. For example, by 2019 the city had reduced its carbon emissions by 43% compared to the emissions in 2000, introducing progressive policies such as the London Low Emission Zone in 2008 and the Ultra Low Emission Zone in 2019. However, there is still a long way to go.

The report found that the number one challenge was the current policy and regulatory frameworks. In essence they were not effective and were seen as a barrier for implementing measures to get to net zero. There was also lack of clarity among different policies and different regulatory frameworks, measurements and benchmarks which makes it very difficult to have standard and comparable baselines to work with.

The inadequate provision of central government funding, access to green finance and financial incentives was rated as the second biggest challenge London and the built environment sector is facing. The next barrier was the lack of accessible, sharable and compatible data disclosing carbon emissions across the industry so as to understand the key area of improvements and focusing on the actions that need to be taken. The remaining four challenges faced were time and scale in the sense the it is a very short window to take action and innovation is needed fast to meet these ambitions; a lack of collaboration across sectors was perceived as being an impact in the ability to tackle the climate emergency; the lack of skills; and lastly the lack of knowledge.

The report also recommended seven approaches to get to zero carbon.

  • Firstly, it recommended that retrofit should become 90% of the work of all built environment professionals.
  • Secondly, we need to adopt a truly circular economy approach to construction, design and planning by getting better at managing the limited resources we have on our planet and replace the end-of-life concept and traditional linear ‘take, make, and waste’ economy with a circular economy approach. This would mean building, designing and planning long life loose fit buildings (including their appliances and services), a focus on retrofit and a shift to zero waste.
  • Next was the recommendation to transition to 100% clean energy coupled with a reduction of energy use.
  • This was followed by the recommendation to design and build all new buildings to operate at zero carbon.
  • The fifth recommendation was to adopt a whole life carbon assessment to all new projects.
  • Followed by the recommendation to keep embodied carbon to a minimum and so the use of low-carbon materials is a key approach, whether for new builds or retrofit.
  • Lastly, there was a recommendation to increase green infrastructure, which was seen as a win-win solution to increase health and wellbeing while addressing the climate agenda. It was rated as one of the easiest solutions that we can implement now.

Outcome

Quite rightly, the report states that as London has made significant commitments to net-zero carbon it is ahead of many cities but has a long way to go. It will need a continuing commitment and development of expertise at city and borough level, plus the ingenuity, resolve and understanding of all elements of the built environment sector as a whole and substantial investment.

A lot of the challenges identified by the report also need to be addressed at Central Government level. Without leadership from the top, it is unlikely that change will happen fast enough. The key priorities for the UK Government following the COVID-19 crisis is to rebuild the economy while addressing the climate emergency. The challenge the Government faces is how to maintain the reduction in carbon emissions currently, which is associated with an economic slowdown, whilst it rebuilds the economy. We have to maintain the momentum in reducing emissions. If London’s population continues to rapidly grow – by 2050 it may be home to more than 11 million people – and the climate crisis accelerates, the challenge will only become more urgent. Transport, energy infrastructure, waste, new construction and existing architecture, all need to take steps to achieve carbon neutrality.

Ultimately, though, so many of the changes needed would not be immediately visible – and a lot of the work means enhancing the city that already exists. When we think of a future, cleaner, greener London, we might envisage high-profile, statement green architecture. But the reality of the necessary changes will be far more systemic, like pedestrianised streets, cycle superhighways and an absence of fossil-fuel powered cars. Achieving the net-zero city has to involve everyone. If a dramatic change to lifestyles is needed, then steps have to be taken to make that convenient, accessible and affordable for all. Empowered citizens are essential to achieving net zero and creating a climate-resilient London.

The NLA’s report can be found here.

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