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How will London meet its net-zero targets?

Climate action now seems to be at the top of every politician’s agenda. Our Research Director Claire Harding looks at how easy (or difficult) it will be for London to meet its goals.

The world is getting more serious about climate change — or at least about setting climate change targets. In the last month, Joe Biden has committed the US to 50 per cent emissions reductions from 2005 levels by 2030 and Boris Johnson has committed the UK to 78 per cent reductions from 1990 levels by 2035. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has set a target for the city to reach net-zero by 2030. And ahead of the election in May his Green, Liberal Democrat and Conservative rivals had also all committed to significant decarbonisation projects if they were elected.

Of course, targets don’t do anything by themselves. We must wait to hear from the Mayor and the government for more detail on their plans. Overall, government action will make it easier for London’s politicians and policymakers to achieve carbon reduction goals. Many of the policy levers for our city are controlled centrally, there is limited capacity for renewable energy generation within the M25, and City Hall’s and borough budgets would be stretched by mass-scale moves to better insulate existing homes and decarbonise domestic heating and hot water. This matters because domestic heating is among the biggest contributors to Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions. We have good solutions to drive them down while keeping people comfortable in their homes, but implementing the technology at scale is expensive.

Some aspects of decarbonisation are easier in London. Carbon emissions for the whole city are inevitably high as so many people live here, but carbon emissions per person are lower than the national average. This is partly driven by different transport patterns; Londoners own fewer cars, commute more on public transport, and are more able to make every day journeys to the shops on foot. Our homes are also more energy efficient because they are smaller on average, and because blocks of flats and tightly packed terraces are insulated by other homes. A lot of this difference is inherent to urban life, but successive mayoral policies to discourage driving and improve public transport and cycling options have built on this advantage.

But other aspects of decarbonisation are more challenging in our city – either because they are harder to do, or because London will be more affected by the changes we need to make. While our housing stock is relatively energy efficient, it’s harder to improve insulation and move away from gas heating than it is in other areas. This is partly because of the nature of the stock – it’s technically harder to insulate and add heat pumps in large blocks of flats. It’s also because of different ownership. London has a lot of rental properties compared to the rest of the UK, and landlords don’t stand to benefit from energy bill reductions from their tenants, so they have little incentive to improve energy efficiency even if the cost of the works is subsidised.

If we decide to decarbonise by making flying much more difficult and expensive, London is likely to be hit hard. Summer 2020 showed that British people are willing to substitute holidays abroad with holidays to our coast and countryside when international travel isn’t easy – some places were a lot busier than usual – but tourist destinations in our city were very quiet. Some of this is down to coronavirus restrictions, which closed most entertainment destinations. But even after the pandemic but it’s probably not realistic to expect domestic and European rail tourism to make up for international long haul visitors. If tourist and business visits to London do fall, then thousands of Londoners are going to need support to work in different industries, and some of our buildings will need to be used in different ways.

One of the key tasks for this mayoral term will be to lobby the government to introduce climate policies that work for London as well as the rest of the UK. This is likely to be a tricky task given that relationships between City Hall and Westminster are at a low ebb, and the ‘levelling up’ agenda doesn’t leave much space for investment to solve London’s specific problems. But the growing alignment of carbon targets at international, national and regional level can surely only help.

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Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London. Read more from her here.