Achieving net zero in the wake of Covid-19

Proposed design for the redevelopment of the BT Building. Image Courtesy of Montagu Evans.

Achieving net zero report launch

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the climate emergency. Future of London’s Knowledge programme on Achieving Net Zero set out to help urban practitioners to understand the active role we can all play and provide practical steps we can take to respond to climate change. The final report brings together our research findings and sets out clear recommendations in the context of:

Watch the event below

In London, our leaders have made public commitments to respond to this crisis – with 28 boroughs declaring climate emergency and the mayor doing the same whilst pledging to bring forward London’s carbon-neutral target by 20 years if re-elected in May.

Our launch started with a presentation by Jo Mortensen, Climate Action Programme Manager, LB Ealing (and Future of London Leaders alumnus). Jo talked about the progress we’ve made in sharing the responsibility of sustainability and put forward the current combination of conditions which give us the chance to “turn a new page”. She said: “We have seen powerful shifts at an international government level which have led to action and finally we are all able to understand the urgency. We now have governments paying attention and willing partners.”

She also reminded us of the important role of the natural environment in helping us to restore some balance with the planet. Following Jo, we heard from a cross-sector panel who represent organisations that have a significant part to play in responding to net zero:

Thomas Bender, Senior Heritage Advisor, Montagu Evans

Julia Crear, Regional Director South, Living Streets

Tom Dollard, Head of Sustainable Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards

Alexia Laird, Sustainable Design Executive, Landsec

Esme Stallard, Climate Change and Cities Consultant, Arup

The Achieving Net Zero report brings together Future of London’s findings and some practical and inspirational case studies featuring net zero materials, approaches to sustainable procurement, retrofit projects, new estate development and everything in between. Our recommendations are under four key themes and we covered them all in the discussion. Here are some of the highlights:

Understanding the challenges and opportunities

It’s essential for practitioners to agree a definition of net zero and to have a clear roadmap – especially in developments which might take years to complete – “you have to know where you’re going.” said Tom Dollard. Thomas Bender reflected that it was clear from our discussion  that there’s a lot of knowledge, but everyone has different ideas about what zero carbon means, so it’s easy to feel unsure about what action to take. The importance of creating consensus behind a clear vision and strategy cannot be overstated.

One suggestion from Alexia about how to overcome the intimidation is to embrace small-scale trials. She also encouraged us to embrace technological advances – for example, asking design teams about their capabilities to model embodied carbon to help project teams make good decisions about sustainable materials.

There was a reminder that offsetting should be the last resort. Reducing the material need and looking at alternative materials should always be prioritised.

Securing behaviour change

“Behaviour change is most effectively achieved…when there is clear sense of purpose to the work and there are synergies with the ambitions of individuals’ existing roles. And this is particularly important within local authorities where capacity and resources may already be stretched.” Esme Stallard, Arup

Responding to an audience question, the panel talked about how to encourage individual homeowners to retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient. There are many resources available on this but educating the public on how and why to access them is required. The panel felt the role of local authorities has not been made clear and given their wealth of experience in procurement they have a lot to offer here – if the delivery mechanism for a mass retrofit programme is designed correctly.

Empowering communities

Julia highlighted the importance of talking to local people about their barriers to acting more sustainably – and coming up with solutions that cut across public health, transport and environment. She urged us to enable inclusion within our strategies and initiatives as much as possible – particularly for people who are older or who have access needs.

The panel felt we need to have a continuous, honest conversation with communities. Be open to learning from them rather than seeing ourselves as holders of all knowledge.

Responding to Coronavirus

Covid has taught us a clear lesson about how we achieve systematic behaviour change – with clear messaging and a shared understanding of motivation, we do have the capacity to quickly change the way things are done. The combined impact of:

  • Covid (providing an opportunity to work differently)
  • governments making public commitments
  • and communities feeling an affinity with the issue and taking action

have created the circumstances for a transformation. As Jo put it “And now it’s down to each of us…to make good on that opportunity”

Based on the active discussion during our event, our audience seem to already be taking on this challenge. We have pulled together a summary of the useful resources shared by those who came along and hope that alongside the report, they provide you with some inspiration.

Find out more about FoL’s Achieving Net Zero project here and download the report here.


Climate action

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership –

Living Streets –

London Energy Transformation Initiative –

Local Government Association –

The Institution of Structural Engineers –

UK local climate emergency action plans –

Sustainable economics

Doughnut Economics Action Lab –

Green technologies

Centre for Alternative Technology –

Price & Myers ––24

The Institution of Structural Engineers –