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Green power: learning from London’s Extinction Rebellion protests

Our Director of Strategic Projects Rob Whitehead considers what London’s leaders must learn from the latest XR demonstrations in order to speed up progress on tackling the climate emergency.

A megacity suffers mega floods, and we are to blame. Last week New York. Next week it could be London. The flash floods that hit in early August were just a taste of what may come. Our greenhouse gas emissions are driving extreme weather events and causing disasters. This link is now ‘an established fact’, according to the IPCC. The World Meteorological Organisation agrees. Global warming isn’t just a concern for the next generation, or the global South. Many have been on this page for a while. Our political leaders, though, are not stepping up.

This failure spawned Extinction Rebellion (XR) and seeded Greta Thunberg’s school strikes. They set out to change the political weather, through direct action and protest. And they were pretty good at it. The UK, London and most London boroughs declared a climate emergency in their wake. But, the pandemic stopped XR in their tracks, and most of the political momentum they helped generate evaporated.

We need to re-build this political energy. The global responsibility alone should motivate us. But London is also increasingly exposed to flood and other weather-driven disasters. Perhaps worse, we also risk the city’s reputation, with dire consequences. Cities compete to attract the smart, energetic and ingenious, so reputation matters. Tomorrow’s citizens increasingly want to be part of the solution. As consumers they’ll be sipping ‘carbon negative’ lager and spurning fast fashion in favour of ‘regenerative and restorative by design’ clothes. The most mobile, and often smartest and most productive, will likely steer clear of cities that fail to rise to the challenges of sustainability, threatening a spiral of decline.

Increasingly we all agree that action needs to be taken, but so far we this has failed to translate into major political change. So XR resurfaced in August bringing parts of central London to a standstill. They remind us forcibly that we have not yet met the climate change challenge head on.  Away from the protests why has our political system not caught up?

It’s not because Greens can’t win power. In France they run major cities, and Paris is governed by, in effect, a red-green coalition. In Germany the Economist predicts with near certainty that the Green Party will be in national government by the autumn. In Scotland Greens have just entered into a power sharing arrangement.  And the Greens run Brighton, a city only 50 miles south of London.

Nationally our first-past-the-post system is partly to blame. But look what UKIP achieved despite it – Brexiteers finessed their vote-winning into a partial take over of the Conservatives.  And local elections are kinder to upstarts. The threshold to get a footing in a borough or make a splash in the Mayoral or Assembly elections is far lower. What’s more, London is a ‘progressive’ city. Already the focus of protests, it could be a hotbed of green political success. Yet the Green London Mayoral candidate won a paltry 7.8 per cent of the vote this year. Greens hold only three of the London Assembly’s 25 seats  They are yet to be anywhere near to controlling a single London council.

This wouldn’t matter if the major parties were rising to the challenge. Sure, they have shown some enthusiasm for the green agenda, and real change has come about as a result. The decarbonisation of our energy supply has been remarkable, and policies such as the Ultra Low Emission Zone, and the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 are radical, policies pushed by London’s Labour Mayor, and by the current Conservative government respectively. In fact by international comparison our decarbonisation efforts thus far have been amongst the best, with emissions down 40 per cent over 30 years.

We know now though, thanks to the work of the IPCC, the UK Climate Change Committee, and others, that the next 40 per cent will be both far harder, and more urgent. And this is not being adequately grasped by political leaders. New radical, detailed, funded plans that wean us fast off our remaining dependence on fossil fuels, from petrol for cars, to gas for heating, to the embodied carbon in the goods we buy and things we build, without worsening the inequalities we already tolerate too readily, are needed urgently. As the pandemic has shown, an emergency response breaks new ground fast, gets things wrong, can cost vast sums, but pushes on and adapts until we are in the clear.

This will take political imagination, courage and leadership. We urgently need mainstream politics to change, rise to the climate challenge, and start helping us act on an emergency footing. Whatever the party, we need greens in power.

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