By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

In a report published today that forensically analyses the pathways for London to achieve net zero emissions this decade, and publicly sets out the policy choices that must be made in the next few months and years to achieve it, Sadiq Khan has set a new bar for every elected leader to match. This is what political leadership looks like, and we will need a lot more of it to ensure the recovery from the pandemic is also an opportunity to address an increasingly urgent climate crisis.

Cutting emissions at the pace and scale that is now necessary and delivering cleaner air will require significant change. Mayor Khan’s report shows that car traffic in London must be reduced by at least 27% this decade, alongside a much more rapid shift away from fossil fuel vehicles towards active transport, public transport and cleaner vehicles. Currently, just 2% of vehicles on the roads in London are electric.

© Maurizio Martorana / C40

Inevitably, those with vested interests in the fossil fuel or old car industries are going to say we can’t afford it. But the reality is that we can’t afford NOT to clean up the city’s air. Most importantly, ending pollution is a question of social justice, as Londoners who live in the areas that are the worst affected by air pollution are the least likely to own a car. 

To keep the price of reliable, high quality and zero emission mobility low for the majority, it is essential that the polluter pays. Today’s report suggests that achieving the necessary reduction in vehicles on the roads will require a next-generation road user charging system, perhaps replacing it with a scheme where drivers pay per mile, with different rates depending on how polluting vehicles are. There would likely be exemptions and discounts for disabled Londoners and those on low incomes.

For most people in London, reducing the number of vehicles on the roads is a win-win. A shift away from car-dependent lifestyles to more active travel is expected to improve people’s health, cut traffic accidents and congestion, and improve social connectivity. Congestion cost London £5.1bn last year. All in all, the costs of inaction would be far greater than the costs of taking action.

The Mayor’s scenarios also target a 40% reduction in the total heat demand of London’s buildings, requiring over 210,000 homes and 15,000 non-domestic buildings to be retrofitted each year, fitting 2.2 million heat pumps by 2030 and connecting 460,000 buildings to district heating networks. London is not the only C40 city looking at this: New York recently joined San Francisco and Seattle in banning gas in new buildings.

This mayoral leadership is important because the gas industry is fighting hard to mislabel their poisonous fossil-fuel product as “clean energy”. They have already successfully lobbied 22 US states to introduce pre-emptive legislation to prevent more cities following the trend to require that new builds are run on renewable energy.

Mayor Khan is under no illusions about the tough political decisions required, saying:  “We have too often seen measures to tackle air pollution and the climate emergency delayed around the world because it’s viewed as being too hard or politically inconvenient, but I’m not willing to put off action we have the ability to implement here in London.” 

I was hugely impressed both with how Mayor Khan ignored seductive calls to delay expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) last year because of the pandemic. He was right to proceed, because too many lives are already being damaged or lost due to air pollution, and the need to stop climate destruction is too urgent. I note that the expansion has been both successful and largely popular.

Ultra Low Emission Zone in London
© Harry Mitchell / AP Images for C40

That was one big, difficult decision. Implementing any of the net zero pathways in the UK’s largest city will require multiple significant policy changes and major increases in investment. Support from national governments, particularly on replacing polluting gas heating systems with clean air source heat pumps, is crucial. The report highlights the science-based political leadership that is needed this decade not just from cities but from all levels of government, to bounce back from the pandemic and deliver national and global ambitions for net zero.

20 years ago, as a young adviser at City Hall, I was involved in creating the London congestion charge and the original low emission zone. I thought then that they were policies that every major city in the world would need to follow, and many have done so. But it is more vital than ever that the leadership the Mayor of London is providing today is copied around the world. 

Mayor Khan talked about climate “doers not delayers” at COP26, and he is again showing what it means in practice: London is blazing a trail for other global cities to follow.

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