City Makers’ Forum: London’s response to the climate emergency

The Mayor has declared a climate emergency and committed to making London a zero-carbon city by 2050. The 2018 London Environment Strategy showcases the policies and programmes to get us there. At least 27 London boroughs have followed suit and are busy setting their own ambitious carbon reduction targets. The changes, whether mitigation or adaptation, will require investment, but the costs of not acting far outweigh those of early implementation (Mark Carney at al., 2019).

On 29 January, City Makers’ Forum brought together a diverse, cross-sector network of next-wave leaders to explore strategic approaches to the climate emergency and present their own perspectives on the challenges facing London.

The time for tough questions

Philipp Rode. City Makers' Forum: Climate Emergency
Philipp Rode, LSE Cities. Source: Future of London.

“Two years ago, we weren’t using the term ‘climate emergency’”, says Philipp Rode, LSE Cities. The increasingly widespread use of this term reflects the growing realisation that we’re not getting to where we need to by making small, gradual adjustments.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the increase of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees, we must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade, explained Philipp. So we need to consider more drastic action, such as rationing carbon – and be honest with ourselves about the scale of the challenges we’re facing.

How are London and its critical systems going to cope? As partnership Manager for the GLA’s London Climate Change Partnership, Kristen Guida works with partners from different sectors to make London more resilient. “Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen in the future; the climate is already changing,” says Kristen.

Although she believes that the Mayor’s forthcoming London Plan will deliver more resilient places, she’s concerned about the lack of attention given to adaptation measures (which address the impacts rather than the causes) in climate emergency discussions. Nor is enough meaningful consideration given to the adverse effects of climate change on poorer communities.

Kristen Guida. City Makers' Forum: Climate Emergency
Kristen Guida, London Climate Change Partnership. Source: Future of London.

Achieving a net zero built environment sector

The panel provided a useful snapshot of some of the ways in which the built environment sector is responding to the climate emergency. The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) is helping businesses take a lead in driving the transition to a net zero carbon built environment sector. Last year they published a framework definition of how to achieve net zero carbon buildings in both construction and operation.

Richard Twinn told the audience that the biggest change UKGBC has seen in the last two years is from the investment community: “The climate emergency is now having an impact on their decision-making; they want net zero strategies.”

Property developer Berkeley Group, which is currently building 10% of London’s new homes, also recognises that it needs to be part of the solution. Louise Clarke described how the Group is taking a lead on sustainable homes by improving the energy efficiency of their developments and putting in place transition plans to make sure that new homes are not only zero carbon by 2030 but continue to be throughout their lifetime. They’re also incorporating more green spaces into their developments to create more resilient places that will adapt to the climate as it changes in the future.

While Berkeley Group’s focus is on new homes, both Kristen and Richard also stressed the importance of retrofitting existing buildings. “The elephant in the room are existing homes and how we retrofit them all by 2050,” said Richard. “We need to retrofit 1.8 homes every minute between now and 2050 to achieve net zero.”

Empowering local authorities to act  

Emma Ashcroft, Carbon Trust, works with local authorities to develop plans for achieving their net zero targets, by decarbonising heat in council-owned buildings, for example. “Cities are well placed to lead the way in decarbonisation,” says Emma, “but the lack of a clear national strategy means that local authorities remain uncertain about how to do this.” She’d like to see more policies and regulatory frameworks from national government, to enable local authorities to move more quickly on tackling the climate emergency.

Emma also believes that more funding is needed. She and Richard pointed out that one of the main challenges facing local authorities in their attempt to tackle the climate emergency is the lack of resources. “Local government lacks the capacity, resources and funding that it needs,” argues Emma. “Cities need to be empowered to act.”

“A climate-resilient London in a non-climate-resilient UK is pointless”

All five panellists stressed the importance of cross-sector partnerships and collaboration in tackling the climate emergency. No one organisation or sector can address this alone. As Kristen pointed out, “A climate-resilient London in a non-climate-resilient UK is pointless.”

To get the policies we need – on decarbonising and building net zero homes, for example – we need a coordinated approach between government, industry and civil society. And we need to think about how we mobilise people to avoid a backlash.

“Engineers and architects might have the technical know-how, but they don’t necessarily have a background in mobilising people,” says Philipp. One member of the audience pointed to citizens assemblies as a way of mobilising people, particularly with regards to the lifestyle and cultural changes that all of us are going to have to make. LB Camden held the UK’s first citizen’s assembly on the climate emergency in July 2019.

Networking at City Makers' Forum: Climate Emergency
Networking at City Makers’ Forum. Source Future of London. 

How useful are targets?

Much of the discussion in the Q&A focused on targets and the role they play in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Given that many of the local authorities who have declared their intention to be carbon neutral by 2050 have not yet said how they plan to achieve this – indeed, research suggests that this is a completely unrealistic target for a number of them – one attendee suggested that we should shift from trying to meet unrealistic targets to maximising what we are able to do.

Emma sees some value in this approach. In her work with local authorities, breaking a big problem down into smaller, shorter-term actions helps people focus on what they can do now. Similarly, Kristen encourages those in the Partnership to think about what the most plausible worst-case scenario is for their organisation, and do what they can do to prevent it today.

Targets are still useful though, particularly from a business perspective. They provide a benchmark and can reveal where we are going wrong. “We need to be doing everything we know how to do already. And we needed to be doing it yesterday,” says Richard.

Achieving Net Zero is Future of London’s major project this year. City Makers’ Forum is a partnership between cross-sector built environment network Future of London and economic and regeneration consultancy Hatch Regeneris. If you’d like to be involved in the forum, contact us.