London calling the shots

The British capital has sidestepped the central government's “carnival of debate” and set itself some comprehensive climate-change targets. Murray Armstrong reports.

Buoyed by the success of the road congestion charge in reducing central London's carbon emissions by an estimated 16%, the city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, is planning to cut the capital's production of carbon dioxide (CO2) to 60% of 1990 levels by 2025. By targeting homes, businesses, transport and energy efficiency, the climate-change action plan will prepare the city for a rise in temperatures of between 1.5C and 3C by 2050.

Speaking at the Guardian newspaper’s climate change conference earlier this year, Livingstone said: "The prospect of 60% savings in 20 years is easily achievable. Only political will is required."

The London target is far more ambitious than the national targets set by government, which currently aspire to a 60% reduction by 2050. Livingstone believes there are no technical restrictions that will prevent the city becoming carbon neutral, but he says he will need some key national policy shifts to get beyond the first 10-year milestone in 2016. In that initial period, the plan being implemented by the city’s London Climate Change Agency (LCCA) is expected to achieve a 20% drop in CO2 emissions.

"It's remarkable that within the existing powers I have we can achieve a 30% reduction in carbon emissions in 20 years," Livingstone told the June conference. "With regulatory change we could make that a 60% reduction within 20 years." He accused the national government of joining in a “carnival of debate” and doing too little. "For all the verbiage, there is virtually negligible action."

The London plan is based on the global view of "contraction and convergence", which recognises that large industrialised nations need to take the greatest share of responsibility for the warming they have caused, while allowing developing nations to increase their emissions until a safe stabilisation level — a "carbon democracy" — has been reached.

Houses contribute 38% of London’s 44 million tonnes of emissions each year, with about half of that total coming from heating. A prototype GREENhomes service, based on a successful Canadian scheme, is now being used in 40 homes in the south London borough of Lewisham. The project includes a "concierge" service of advisers who carry out home energy audits and offer advice on energy efficiency, finance, grants, suppliers and installation.

Mark Watts, the mayor's climate change adviser, says the service will be rolled out in the rest of the capital beginning in December 2007. Subsidised insulation is part of the programme, and grants of up to £500 ($1,000) will be available towards the cost of installing renewable sources of micro-generated energy.

The commercial and industrial sectors contribute 40% of London's emissions, or about 17.6 million tonnes a year. The programme sees this being cut by about 7.6 million tonnes. A combination of incentives and behavioural change could achieve some of this, while higher standards for new buildings can add a little more. A detailed policy announcement on this part of the plan is expected before the end of December.

London also is set to begin retrofitting all of its public buildings in 2008, to bring them up to desired environmental standards. The city is one of the major partners in a deal set up in association with the Clinton Foundation in May 2007, which will retrofit public buildings in the world's major cities and create a market to encourage business and commerce to join in. The C40 Large Cities Climate summit, held in New York in May, brought together four of the world's largest energy service companies and five of the largest banks to run the landmark programme, designed to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings.

Launching the initiative, former US president Bill Clinton reflected on the difference between many American cities and states and the climate sceptics in Washington when he said, "Climate change is a global problem that requires local action."

Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens and Trane will conduct energy audits in the programme, perform retrofits in 15 pilot cities, and guarantee the energy savings of the projects. The banks that have committed $1 billion each to the scheme are ABN Amro, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase and UBS. Loans are repaid from energy savings and are reckoned to be settled at no net cost.

In the process, the global market for energy retrofitting in buildings will be doubled. Those cities involved in the first phase are Bangkok, Berlin, Chicago, Houston, Johannesburg, Karachi, London, Melbourne, Mexico City, New York, Rome, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Tokyo and Toronto. Livingstone estimates that the retrofitting of public buildings in those cities alone will reduce global emissions by 10% without the involvement of any government.

The London climate change plan also relies on new, micro-methods of energy generation. Centralised generation is said to waste two-thirds of the energy in leakage and distribution, whereas decentralised generation can cut the waste to 15%. The plan envisages moving much of London's electricity use away from the national grid and on to local, low-carbon sources, such as on-site renewable micro-generation, energy from waste, and combined cooling, heat and power systems. The goal is to take a quarter of the city's supply to local sources by 2025 and have most of it generated in this way by 2050.

High levels of public transport in London mean vehicle emissions are much lower than in other major cities, accounting for 22% of the total. Continued investment in buses and trains, along with charging for carbon in private cars, can deliver a saving of some one million tonnes of CO2 a year, says the London government.

However, aviation is not included in the transport figures. Bringing the industry into a carbon-trading scheme will be essential to reach the desired 2050 goals, says Livingstone. He points out that only 15% of flights from Heathrow and City airports are business-related. The huge increase in air travel in recent years has been in the leisure sector, and he believes the market should reflect the carbon cost of flights. A £15 ($30) carbon tax on each ticket, he says, would halt continuing growth.

If the goal of a 60% reduction in London's emissions is not achieved by 2050, the mayor envisages a dreadful day when, as in continental Europe in 2003, "tens of thousands" of pensioners could die in summer heat waves. Even if the goal is achieved, temperatures will be much higher than now, and will be more keenly felt. The city will need shade and a cooling system, and Livingstone is already in talks with the Royal Horticultural Society to devise a planting programme of trees that will survive in the summer heat expected by the middle of the century.

Boris Johnson, an opposition candidate in next May's London mayoral election, has yet to decide whether the plan would go ahead if he took over at City Hall. His aides say he is in "policy lockdown mode at the moment," meeting with experts and testing policy ideas. "Boris wants to be a green mayor and for London to be the greenest city in the world," said a spokeswoman for the campaign, "and will therefore be looking to see if existing plans are delivering or can be improved upon. It is too early to specifically comment on the mayor's climate action plan, as it may depend on other policies that Boris will wish to introduce."

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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