London Climate Action Week: How is the capital planning to reach net-zero?

In 2018

Set up by E3G in 2019, in a bid to unite communities and professionals to develop practical solutions to climate change in London and beyond, London Climate Action Week (LCAW) is a highlight in the calendar for those working in the UK’s sustainability space.

The week-long virtual agenda is jam-packed with speeches, panels and workshops from organisations all across the capital, from NGOs and thinktanks, to local councils and SMEs, to universities and research hubs, to large corporations with a heavy presence in London. Four key themes have been selected for this year’s LCAW: delivering a green, fair and resilient recovery from Covid-19; preparing for COP26; enabling ‘whole-of-society’ climate action and achieving a sustainable, net-zero London.

Against this backdrop, edie takes a step back and reflects on London’s own journey in terms of decarbonisation and climate adaptation – as per the event’s fourth and final key theme.

Target setting

Through the London Environment Strategy, London set a net-zero goal for 2050 back in  May 2018 – a year ahead of the UK Government’s decision to enshrine this commitment in national law.

That target has since been brought forward to 2030 for the direct operations of the city, including City Hall and other buildings used by the Greater London Authority, the Transport for London (TfL) network and social housing across Central London. For all indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the deadline remains at 2050.

In 2020, London Mayor Sadiq Khan was asked whether the 2030 deadline for operational net-zero would need to be amended due to the impacts of Covid-19. Khan confirmed that 2030 was still the ambition and that a “renewed drive to address the climate emergency” would be embedded into the capital’s economic recovery planning.

The London Assembly has worked in partnership with C40 Cities, Arup, Element Energy and Mott MacDonald to develop frameworks for transitioning London to a 1.5C temperature pathway across two of its largest sources of operational emissions – building energy use and energy systems more broadly.

It is worth noting that the City of London Corporation, which manages the Square Mile, is aiming for net-zero operations by 2027 and a net-zero supply chain and investment portfolio by 2040.

Mitigating emissions

According to data from the London Assembly’s London Energy and Greenhouse Gas Inventory (LEGGI), the capital’s annual emissions in 2018 – the latest year for which full data is available – were 37% lower than in 2000, when emissions peaked. Emissions were also 29% lower than in 1990 – the baseline year for the Sixth Carbon Budget, which entails a 78% reduction by 2035.

Accounting for the LEGGI covers energy use, including energy for transport; industrial processes and the use of products; agriculture, forestry and other land use; waste management and a fifth, miscellaneous category. These are the same categories used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for categorising emissions internationally and nationally.

As of 2018, domestic energy use was London’s main source of emissions, accounting for 32.8% of the total. Industrial and commercial properties, similarly, took a 32.4% share. 25.2% was accounted for by transport; 5.7% by industrial processes and product use and 3.6% by waste.

The main contributor to emissions from domestic buildings was gas (69%), followed by electricity (30%). For industrial and commercial properties, the proportion was 52.8% electricity and 33.7% gas, with most remaining emissions attributable to waste, oil use and lower-carbon energy sources. 

On a UK-wide basis, plans for decarbonising electricity largely sit within the Energy White Paper, and the policy package covering the energy efficiency and renewable energy consumption of new-build homes and offices in the Future Homes Standard, which takes effect in 2025. We are still awaiting plans for decarbonising existing homes through retrofitting, following the closure of the Green Homes Grant, as well as the Heat and Building Strategy.

London is subjected to all of these frameworks but also has its own specific plans for tackling emissions from these key sources.

On renewable electricity, London’s ambitions are largely rooted in the Solar Action Plan, which covers both large and local projects, including rooftop PV for schools, sports centres and community halls. While the plan should at least double solar generation capacity by 2025, against 2018 levels, it is estimated that a 20-fold increase will be needed by 2050.

As for building energy efficiency, Khan claims that London’s ‘Zero Carbon Homes’ standard is stricter than the Future Homes Standard. It was implemented in 2016 and requires all new-build homes to reach net-zero operational emissions by 2025. In the absence of a national retrofitting strategy for homes, City Hall recently launched a ‘retrofit revolution’ plan designed to spur £10bn of private investment in retrofitting. This plan builds on years’ worth of work from the existing Retrofit Accelerator, which helps to connect private housebuilders and social housing operators with funding for retrofitting.

Somewhat less has been done on decarbonising heat in the absence of a national direction on the preferred technology pathways and timelines. City Hall itself runs a boiler scrappage scheme called ‘Cleaner Heat Cashback’ and is also working to identify opportunities for low-carbon heat networks through a ‘Heat Map’ tool that updates annually. It is largely on the private sector to deliver heat networks but the Greater London Authority is also exploring opportunities for networks that re-circulate waste heat from the Underground.

London’s moves to tackle transport emissions have been high-profile, from the introduction of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and related scrappage schemes, to the addition of 500 electric buses, 20 hydrogen buses and the retrofit of all other buses to meet the Euro VI emissions standard. The underlying Transport Strategy is headlined by a commitment to ensure that 80% of trips in London are made using public or active transport by 2041.

Additional funding for decarbonising all of these biggest contributors to London’s emissions was recently allocated through the £10m Green New Deal Fund – part of London’s Covid-19 recovery financing.

Adapting to climate impacts  

According to the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recent assessment of climate risk, the UK, as a whole, is poorly prepared for changes that are already “baked in”, meaning that winters will be hotter and wetter, and summers hotter and dryer in the coming decades, regardless of the pace of decarbonisation. The biggest risk to London is likely water scarcity; ageing infrastructure, a growing population and changing weather means that London is already classed as water-stressed and that basic demand could outstrip supply by the 2040s.

However, London has been named as one of the nation’s best-prepared locations in terms of climate adaptation by CDP. CDP’s 2020 Cities ‘A-List’ report states that London has strong adaptation plans which will only get better with more investment in infrastructure from the central government, which is expected to come through the new National Infrastructure Bank.

The London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy includes a commitment to “water neutrality”. This means that there should be no net increase in demand as the population increases, due to improvements in water efficiency at homes and in commercial buildings. Savings should then overtake demand growth, taking London to a place of “water security”.

Also detailed in the Strategy are commitments to increase green cover in central London to 10% by 2050; to regularly update a map of “cool spaces” where residents can take refuge during heatwaves and to improve drainage in collaboration with Thames Water, the Environment Agency and borough councils.

Further targets and schemes may well be announced in London soon; the current Adaptation Strategy was developed in 2011 and it is likely that cities will take note of the recent CCC warning in the ongoing delivery of green recovery initiatives. London’s Climate Change Partnership has been running since 2001 and advises the Greater London Authority on science-based measures to adapt to changing weather patterns and to improve education on – and access to funding for – adaptation projects.

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie