Net zero capital? What London’s political parties can offer to tackle the climate crisis

Sadiq Khan has backed a target of net zero by 2030 if he's re-elected. What could mayoral candidates offer London to make that happen?

In 2018, the London Assembly declared a climate emergency, and called on the mayor to do likewise with emergency plans to reach net zero by 2030. What now?

As parties gear up for London’s mayoral election, Sadiq Khan’s backing for a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030 has already set an ambitious goal for the capital that should be difficult to unravel – not least when Khan’s opposition comes from the climate-friendly Greens (via Sian Berry) and the Lib Dems’ Luisa Porritt.

While the GLA’s powers are limited – and clearly in need of expansion – the GLA’s £17bn annual budget offers major leverage to reduce emissions in the capital.

The mayor’s soft power as a leader also provides opportunities to encourage companies and organisations in London to go further and faster on emissions, working together to tackle the climate challenge. The ability to set London plans for key policy areas such as housing, health and transport also enables the joined up thinking that the crisis necessitates. 

Progress

The past five years have seen progress in several green areas. The latest expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions zone, coming into force Oct 2021, was been warmly welcomed by climate NGOs I’ve spoken to. The massive reduction in air pollution is also set to provide major benefits for health and social justice, with air pollution hitting low-income communities the hardest.  

As polling by London Councils has shown, the overwhelming majority of Londoners are deeply concerned about, impacted by and motivated to take action on climate change.

So London could reap dividends by being a leader on moving to net zero. However, many of the targets in the mayor’s current environment strategy still relate to 2050. For example, mega-polluting heavy goods vehicles are currently meant to be zero emission by 2040 – ten years after London is meant to reach net zero, and the date is 2050 for road transport as a whole. It’s just too slow.

Transport focus

London’s carbon emissions per person are low in now small part due to the strength of public transport in the capital. Transport for London’s democratic oversight provides a pretty unparalleled tool for the mayor’s net zero efforts (in comparison to other metro mayors), and the mayor is right to resist impositions and threats from the Conservatives which undermine TfL’s budget and powers.  

London should be leading the way in reducing car use, for the wellbeing and safety of residents. The proportion of trips made by cars needs to dramatically reduce in the next decade Surface transport – namely cars – is the largest cause of emissions, and this will not be eliminated by the shift to electric vehicles…only outsourced to where the energy is produced. 

Policies like the Silvertown tunnel and City airport expansion (soon moving into its next phase) pose major contradictions to this effort though. Increasing supply often fosters additional demand, as we have seen with the massive increase in UK road building in recent decades as public transport was left to wither.

At a cost of £2bn, a consensus among organisational supporters of net-zero is that the Silvertown Project is incompatible with tackling the climate crisis. It must be reviewed on this basis. 

Capping cars

The London Cycling Campaign has noted that in order to get to net zero by 2050, London needs a 60% reduction in car mileage by 2035.

Increasing car use and air traffic in the capital pose major risks to residents, and seem misguided when there are just nine years to go until the vast majority of emissions need to be eliminated (if we’re going to reach that 2030 target).

Khan will face pressure to bring forward London’s target for 80% of roadshare to be from public transport by 2041. As the London Cycling Campaign has noted, a recent study by the Land Transport Academy revealed that, even if London had already met that 2041 target, it would still have more car use than four comparator world cities had back in 2014.

The UK Committee on Climate Change has also observed that “the continued rise in road transport emissions highlights the urgent need for stronger policies to reduce growth in demand for travel”. What’s the alternative though?

A city for walking

The past year has since an expansion in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, where through-traffic through local areas is diverted (and hopefully reduced). While initially controversial, if they’re given time they become embedded – and reversing them seems unfathomable.

They have the potential to transform streets if they are combined with new pedestrian-friendly Why don’t we be a bit creative?

The mayor could continue to use his soft power to encourage a major pedestrianisation push – from Hammersmith bridge to making the pro-pedestrian changes made across London during the pandemic, like in Soho, permanent. Parklets – converting car space into green/community spaces – and events could be offered grant support from the GLA. 

I lived in Brussels for a a stint, and one of the city’s redeeming features was regular ‘Car Free Days’ – where the streets were taken over by families, walkers, people on bikes, in a pretty beautiful, regular city-wide community event.

Speaking to me for this piece, groups such as Clean Air London were clear that unifying the road charging schemes into a unified emissions-based road charging system would reduce confusions, bureaucracy and provide a clear public message about the importance of reducing polluting car use. 

Other proposals for greening London

Transport has the virtue of being within the devolved government’s remit. But the Greater London Authority (GLA) could also leverage its powers as a major purchaser by requiring service providers to commit to net zero by 2030.

The GLA could set up new, London-wide competitions or awards for contributions, projects and policies towards net zero, and open up grant funding specifically to climate-friendly and anti-pollution projects.

With food a major contributor to climate change, London could trial voluntary initiatives such as becoming the world’s first ‘Vegetarian Mega-City’, as recommended by Clean Air London. For example, food establishments could be encouraged to provide 50% vegetarian options.

Buildings account for around 40% of emissions in the UK. The London Plan is strong in decarbonising London’s building stock, but the mayor could also develop a lobbying strategy among council leaders and mayors to decarbonise the UK’s housing and commercial building stock, as recently recommended by the GLA’s environment committee.

And all London’s policies implemented in the next decade could be ‘net zero tested’, as recommended by the Climate Coalition, to ensure that every lever of London’s governance is working towards the same goal: averting climate chaos and building a greener capital.

None of this is easy, and if Sadiq Khan is re-elected, he continues to face hostile opposition from Whitehall. But London’s mayor could build support and legitimacy for ambitious measures by backing a London-wide climate assembly, a call of groups like Extinction Rebellion. Londoners – and most political parties in the capital – are clear that the climate crisis needs bold solutions. And it needs them now. Whoever is elected in May shouldn’t squander that energy.

Josiah Mortimer is Co-Editor of Left Foot Forward.

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