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We must take steps to make London greener Richard Shennan

Better integration between actions at different levels of government, co-ordination and engagement with action at community level, proactivity by commercial organisations which can look beyond the political cycle, and smarter use of data are among the key factors that will improve London’s environmental sustainability.

In 2009, London was ranked eleventh in Europe in the Siemens Green City Index. Produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Index was conducted to rate the environmental performances and commitment to environmental impact reduction of 30 leading European cities. London was lagging behind capital cities including Copenhagen, Stockholm and Berlin. Although the challenges facing London as a very large and complex city are perhaps greater, what could we do to reach the top five?

The launch of Open-City’s Green Sky Thinking Week 2014 was dedicated to answering this question. As Programme Partner for the event, Mott MacDonald chaired a panel discussion with representatives from the Greater London Authority (GLA), Mace, the London Borough of Sutton, University College London’s Energy Institute and BNP Paribas Real Estate. The discussion revolved around three key areas for improvement in London.

1. Environmental governance

When it comes to putting sustainability at the forefront of environmental policy, London does not score well. The GLA has made significant efforts to rectify this in recent years, particularly in the area of new build and with ambitious targets for overall reduction in carbon emissions. However, there is still much to be done if London is to climb the ranks of the Green Cities Index. It was agreed by the panel that one of the challenges to overcome is the multiple layers of government, with a need to share knowledge and plan initiatives across boundaries, with some clear evidence that where this has taken place, benefits have quickly accrued.

Public engagement was also identified as an issue. People in the top cities for environmental governance, such as Copenhagen and Brussels, seem to be culturally inclined to act as a community for collective benefit. The panellists agreed that people’s behaviour, driven by their own goals and ambitions, will ultimately be the key to sustainable cities. This is a growing trend in London, with initiatives such as Transition Towns developing at local level, in which communities take actions such as growing their own food and collectively owning their own power stations. City and Local Councils can support these efforts, taking care to see that initiatives appear accessible and not elitist in order to inspire others. ​​​

2. Buildings

New buildings in London are being designed to increasingly high standards supported by the London Plan. The panel discussed the potential sustainability benefits of choosing refurbishment over new builds, particularly the opportunities for clients to improve energy efficiency ratings through large scale refurbishments. Refurbishment of existing structures to form adaptable high-performance buildings can bring benefits in terms of carbon and cost, but investors are often wary of risk related to structures that may not be fully certified and warranted in the equivalent way to a new build.

The panel agreed, however, that forward-thinking commercial organisations are showing leadership in sustainability, driven by their desire to reduce waste, increase efficiency and save money. Large commercial organisations can plan over longer periods of time than the typical political cycle, enabling initiatives with greater scope. However, commercial drivers alone cannot achieve the objective of raising London’s Green City Index performance. To reach the top five, this commercial drive must cohere with well formulated governance and public engagement.

3. CO2 and energy

Carbon reduction was discussed predominantly in relation to buildings. Although the GLA has taken steps towards improving the energy efficiency of buildings, the discussion revealed that more could be done. It was noted that much of the effort to make building performance and energy infrastructure more efficient takes place during design and construction stages, but the benefits only accrue if the intended outcomes become a reality at the occupation stage. To understand and improve these outcomes, good data about performance of integrated building and local energy infrastructure solutions is needed. The use of this kind of data is still in its infancy.

Building information modelling (BIM) offers the potential to establish through-life information management and compare predicted and actual outcomes. However, a willingness to share information and wider data base building is needed. There could be greater use of systems such as Carbon Buzz, which analyses and compares data on buildings at each project stage. With development in this area, sustainable energy infrastructure plans can become a reality.

The discussion set the scene for what looks to be a week of inspiring ideas and debates at Green Sky Thinking 2014. The programme of events will home in further on the issues raised in the launch, considering practical solutions to making London greener.

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