Can London adapt to climate change with a climate sceptic in charge?

Boris Johnson is a climate sceptic who wants to build a massive airport on the Thames Estuary. He cannot be taken seriously on green issues, writes Jenny Jones AM.

Jenny Jones is a Member of the London Assembly for the Green Party

The Mayor of London today launched his vision for closing the country’s biggest airport and replacing it with Heathrow Town. The sterile shopping malls at the terminal buildings would remain shopping malls, and presumably the massive car parks would remain massive expanses of polluted tarmac. It is a property developer’s vision of how London should look and similar to the one that the Mayor is promoting across the capital. It lacks the organic, jumbled vibrancy of traditional London life. It is not a vision I share.

The truth is that Heathrow will have to reduce its flights and carbon emissions, along with the rest of the aviation industry. Heathrow will have to cut back its operations as the realities of climate change become starker and the demands for action on climate change more vocal. The Mayor’s plan for Heathrow Town will be the first of many, as our economy adapts in the same way that our flood defences, food supply and local environments will all need to adapt.

The latest report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that adaptations are possible in many situations, unless of course we fail to reduce emissions and completely wreck the planet. What the Mayor of London shouldn’t do is to propose building an even bigger airport in the Thames Estuary flood plain. The problem is that Boris doesn’t really believe in global warming. When I questioned him on this last year, he was very keen to explain that the snow test on the flowerpots outside his house showed that we are in fact heading back to an ice age.

So instead of Boris Johnson making the giant strides that are needed to prepare London for extreme weather such as floods, droughts and heat waves, he probably feels we should be investing in woolly vests.

Planting more trees to cut the urban heat island effect is just one example of adaptation for a city like London. This typically keeps the most built up areas warmer, typically by 3-4 degrees than the surrounding countryside, and as much as 10 degrees warmer during a heat-wave. It is linked with more strokes and other health impacts.

The Mayor has a strategic aim of increasing tree canopy cover by 5% by 2025, the equivalent of 2 million extra trees. It is not clear how this will be achieved with no interim targets, particularly in central London’s built up locations where the heat island effect is most pronounced. The Mayor rejected my call to consider the ‘Million Trees New York City’ model which delivers 100,000 trees each year, compared to his 10,000 over four years.

It isn’t just the scale of the challenge which Boris ignores, it is the way he substitutes hot air for action. He claims 10,000 extra trees, but ignores all the trees that are being cut down. When I researched figures from the London boroughs from 2010-13, it became clear that they are felling two trees for every three that they plant. Tree experts have warned the Mayor that without additional support London could lose net tree canopy cover by 2025. This kind of reality check is always absent from Mayoral press releases.

If Boris Johnson were serious about maintaining a strong economy he would be pulling all the stops to avoid runaway climate change. Our health, our homes, our food and security are all threatened. Instead the Mayor is actively promoting the expansion of the aviation industry, the most carbon polluting form of transport.

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