Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change remains the “defining issue of our generation”, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said yesterday, speaking at a Centre for London online event on a “green recovery” from the pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis has exposed “flaws in our society for all to see,” he said. And recovery offered an opportunity to tackle both climate justice and social justice. “If we make the right choices, we can accelerate our transition to zero carbon, protect the environment and create the jobs we need.”
The Mayor highlighted his own “green new deal” plans, announced at the beginning of this year, to spend £50 million on initiatives to make the capital carbon neutral by 2030, and more recent action including the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charges for older, more polluting vehicles, introduced last year, and the Streetspace plan creating more space for cycling and walking as lockdown eases.
Londoners are embracing change and “moving faster than the politicians”, he said. And central government should not “drag its feet”, he warned. “We’ve seen the dangers of responding to Covid-19 too slowly. We mustn’t make the same mistake again in responding to the climate emergency.”
The government should now be attaching “green strings” to support packages for business, creating “green collar” jobs, and stepping up devolution plans, he added – “giving us the powers and resources we need to fulfil the ambitions of Londoners”.
Khan’s call was backed by speakers including Muniya Barua, corporate affairs director at the capital’s business lobby group London First, and Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 grouping of 96 major cities worldwide working together to tackle climate change.
Watts stressed the importance of devolution to city mayors, with many administrations in other cities enjoying more powers than Khan, for example on building regulation to promote low or zero carbon heating systems. “Devolve to mayors and let them take the risk,” he said, citing the Blair government passing decision-making on congestion charging to the first Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.
“This has to be a green recovery,” said Barua, calling for joint planning between Whitehall, City Hall and the London boroughs to promote green skills as well as jobs, a sustainable funding deal for Transport for London, and “second generation” road pricing replacing ULEZ fees and the congestion charge to avert a “car-based recovery”.
City Hall deputy mayor for environment and energy Shirley Rodrigues stressed that with 250,000 people already employed in the low carbon sector in London, tackling climate change was a genuine growth sector, with opportunities beyond installing insulation and electric vehicle infrastructure or retrofitting heating systems. “It’s the whole gamut,” she said.
Rodrigues supported Khan’s calls for more powers – “we can’t do all we need to do” –pointing to new City Hall requirements for less polluting black cabs as “good regulation driving change”, including electric cab manufacturing in Coventry.
But speakers also highlighted tensions around recovery, with Barua pointing out that international tourists accounted for 50 per cent of West End retail sales, calling for action to allow tourism to resume safely, alongside support for “sustainable” growth in the aviation sector, which supported 1.5 million jobs.
“Right now we have to travel less,” said Watts, while Rodrigues, suggesting that aviation had “done nothing” to address sustainability, said the sector was a candidate for Khan’s “green strings” to be attached to any government support.
But the controversial Silvertown road tunnel in east London would be going ahead, she said, despite increasing concerns about the new road’s contribution to air pollution. “The Mayor’s been clear. It’s going ahead. It’s contracted,” she said, adding that the scheme addressed existing traffic congestion in the area and the need for new river crossings. “It’s completely compatible with our climate plan.”
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