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London's net zero transformation
There are opportunities to align London’s response to COVID-19 with the drive to reduce carbon emissions to net zero
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London must hold its nerve on the net zero transformation

There are opportunities to align London’s response to COVID-19 with the drive to reduce carbon emissions to net zero, argues Mott MacDonald’s global practice leader for cities, Clare Wildfire.

To make London a net-zero-carbon city requires top-to-bottom action. The commitments made by the UK government and mayor Sadiq Khan can only be met if the boroughs, London’s businesses, its citizens and the managers of its infrastructure and built environment assets play their parts.

Net-zero needs to be achieved by 2050. Thirty years is a long time in terms of our daily lives – enough to raise a family and develop a career, or two. In the timescales of pandemics it is a different order of magnitude entirely. But in terms of asset business planning, regulatory cycles and investment payback, it is very short indeed. So it is good news that, whilst our current focus is on COVID-19 economic recovery and protecting lives and livelihoods, there are signs of some win-win alignments emerging.

How can we achieve net zero?

In May 2019 the UK government legislated to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. It acted on advice and recommendations from its advisory group, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), that rapid and total decarbonisation of the economy is required to achieve a stable climate and a sustainable future. In addition to recognising the UK’s need to play its fair part in decarbonising the entire global economy, the CCC and government noted that the UK’s net-zero target is realistic – and economically desirable.

The burning question is how to do it. The infrastructure and built environment industries have a big part to play. To date they have made some, limited, progress on doing what they do already in lower carbon ways. The CCC’s message is about transformative change in what we do as well as how we do it. New types of assets fit for a net-zero future will need to be brought online while other assets currently in use will have to be decommissioned or re-purposed. Plans for some new assets will need to be revised or scrapped. Before the CCC spurred national government into action, the mayor had already started leading the way, setting in motion some of the most ambitious plans to tackle climate change in the world through the 2018 ‘Zero carbon London: a 1.5C compatible plan’

Three strands of activity are required to meet the challenge. Firstly, we need to create a clean energy revolution. This will involve transforming the energy system, including how we produce and use energy. Renewable electricity is one of the game-changers (for example wind and solar generation). Other forms of low-carbon electricity generation, such as biomass and nuclear, and new forms of energy supply such as hydrogen, will play a part in the future energy mix too, helping displace fossil fuels as a primary energy source.

If electricity production can be decarbonised, many aspects of daily life can be changed, from the way we heat our houses to the way we travel.

London already has plans to electrify much of its transport network over the coming decades, together with an associated upgrade to its electricity network capacity. But, alongside the rest of the country, it has a challenge in how to decarbonise the heating of buildings. Heat is acknowledged to be one of the hardest net-zero challenges because natural gas is so dominant as a primary energy source. To decarbonise heat a decision is needed: whether to replace natural gas with hydrogen or electricity.

Secondly, decarbonising the energy system is a massive undertaking, with significant technical, political, social and economic challenges. But the scale can be reduced by curbing energy demand. The amount of new generating and transmission infrastructure required can be minimised if we step up efforts to improve energy efficiency – to make available power go further. This will involve radically transforming our approach to energy conservation in the design, construction and operation of assets.

Finally, it is now clear that it will not be possible (at least in the next half-century) to totally remove all functions that emit CO2 and what we can’t remove we will need to capture and store to stop it entering the atmosphere. The majority of scenarios for meeting the global 1.5°C target involve some level of CO2 sequestration, because they assume the global economy will not be able to transition away from fossil fuels fast enough. Sequestration options include land-use change, ecosystem restoration and reforestation, as well as technological solutions to capture and store carbon.

The UK has tackled the low hanging fruit for the first two strands with relative success. Net-zero has brought into focus the need for action on aspects that are more difficult. And it is only now that a net-zero target has been set that the significance of the third strand, capturing and storing carbon, is truly clear as the infrastructure industry is forced to consider how far it can really go in reducing its emissions to zero.

Opportunity in disruption

Anyone with experience of trying to change our industry knows that it is slow to respond. Therefore, the process of plotting what we have to do differently, and then doing it, should start now. Yet the challenge just got harder. With government, the mayor’s office and the boroughs focussed on the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, will net-zero be accorded the necessary urgency?

Sometimes it is the very existence of disruptive circumstance that allows us to change things for the better and break out of ‘business as usual’ inertia. We have all seen how necessity has turned agile working from the domain of progressive business into a commonplace and acceptable way of working, and much has been made of the expectation that a permanent shift in working culture will prevail. Coronavirus could result in a long-term reduction in demand for transport, alleviating congestion on the capital’s road and rail networks.

We know the change will have drawbacks in other areas – not least reducing revenues and employment in the transport or commercial office sectors. Set against this, the net-zero agenda can play an important part in London’s economic recovery, creating new jobs and revenue streams.

Millions of London homes will require significant energy efficiency improvement under the ‘curb energy demand’ mandate, through locally deployable packages that can boost employment.

District-scale clean energy interventions – comprising systems of diverse low carbon generation, distribution and storage – not only provide local employment but also keep the ongoing energy spend retained in the local economy, something that the UK100 group of local authorities is looking to capitalise on .

There will likely be an enhanced push towards electric vehicles, not just electric cars but other forms of mobility such as e-bikes and possibly even e-scooters in time. The disruption of threading new electricity infrastructure through an already congested pubic realm can be eased by advanced planning, starting with spatial and temporal mapping of existing capacity against predicted demand.

With cities forming the epicentres of recent infection, there is also the possibility that questions over the resiliency of our current lifestyles will bring a heightened appreciation of good urban planning. Careful placemaking and adherence to design principles that promote connected, active and sustainable lifestyles can impact our ability to live healthy and low carbon lives.

Many cities globally are already introducing measures to improve walking and cycling and support a low-carbon, sustainable recovery from the coronavirus crisis. The Mayor of London is leading the way, with large areas of London to be closed to cars and vans to allow people to walk and cycle safely, and crucially it is the pandemic that has given him agency to make such a bold step.

Wider issues that the mayor and boroughs will be considering with relevance to the built environment are:

  • changes to London’s electricity infrastructure
  • the role of digitalisation in understanding demand profiles, latent capacities and managing/staggering loading to minimise the peaks and fill troughs
  • retrofit of assets
  • synergies between buildings, transport and energy

Driving the net-zero agenda will require unprecedented connectedness in thinking and effort between organisations that have historically operated in silos. This is because, in practice, the systems that make up our built and natural environments are heavily interdependent.

COVID-19 has shown that in an emergency the barriers do come down and all of the key actors work together. Climate change has been declared an emergency – albeit one that is playing out over a longer period of time. The current crisis could give the mayor agency to drive integration of effort on net-zero to deliver enhanced results. It will require many complex decisions over time, but there are low regret opportunities that can be started immediately.

Energy efficiency retrofit, district scale energy systems, uptake of electric vehicles, mapping of electric infrastructure and prioritising active travel: our industry should support these measures to help stimulate economic activity and create new jobs as we recover from the effects of COVID-19, at the same time as safeguarding our city for the long term.

Clare Wildfire

Global practice leader for cities

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