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London must pursue a ‘green’ coronavirus recovery

In 2019 the UK Parliament, the Mayor of London and most London councils declared a Climate Emergency. The coronavirus epidemic has displaced this, and all other political goals, for now. Many fear that the response to the virus, and the havoc it is wreaking on our economy, could mean the momentum will dissipate and lead to disastrous inaction on climate change. We can’t let that happen.

Thanks to Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, humanity was starting to take seriously the challenge of halting global warming. Yes, of course, the current economic shut-down is giving temporary respite to our polluted air and to the climate. But we must guard against complacency. Somehow we need to transition from this crisis into an emergency footing and take urgent measures to curb our carbon emissions.

For London this is as urgent as anywhere, and arguably more so. London is 9 million people living moderately densely 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 transition will 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. 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 should 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.

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 thriving market costs would 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.

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 this crisis is forcing on all of us  from the conversion of the ExCeL convention centre into a 4000 bed NHS Nightingale hospital in just nine days, to the more mundane widespread adoption of videocalling. And unlike the search for a COVID-19 vaccine, we already know most of the answers. As William Gibson said ‘the future is already here,  it is just unevenly spread’.

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