If there’s one environmental policy area which Sadiq Khan can chalk up as a success story, it’s tackling air pollution, with expert evaluation reporting “dramatic improvements” in the capital’s air quality since the Mayor took office in 2016.
Findings from King’s College London, published last October, showed just 14 schools in areas with Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) levels, mainly from vehicle exhausts, above the legal limit, compared to 455 when Khan took office, while the number of Londoners living in such areas was down by 94 per cent, from over two million to 119,000.
Khan’s world-leading central London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), introduced in April 2019, 17 months earlier than scheduled under the last Johnson administration, can take much of the credit, cutting toxic roadside NO2 pollution by more than a third, as well as reducing “greenhouse gas” CO2 emissions. With the ULEZ extension to the north and south circular roads, coming in October, the capital’s air quality is on track to be within legal NO2 limits by 2025.
There’s been some progress too on greening TfL’s 9000-strong “core” bus fleet. The entire fleet now meets ULEZ emission standards, though action on zero carbon buses and taxis has been slower: 400 all-electric buses are now in service along with some 4,000 “zero emission capable” black cabs out of around 15,000 currently licensed.
Casting a growing shadow over the Mayor’s record, however, as campaigning intensifies, is his backing for the Silvertown Tunnel, a new multi-lane road tunnel under the Thames designed to alleviate congestion in the 120 year-old Blackwall Tunnel, which critics argue will increase both traffic volumes and pollution across east London.
And more needs to be done, and done more quickly, experts, and even Khan himself, agree. King’s College points out, for example, that 99 per cent of Londoners still live in areas exceeding the World Health Organisation (WHO) limit for PM2.5, the particularly harmful residues from exhausts and also tyre and brake wear, as well as from non-transport sources.
Air pollution is just part of the environmental challenge. Dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed in particular if Khan, who declared a climate emergency in December 2018, is to meet his ambitious target of making London a net zero carbon city by 2030.
It’s a big ask, and will mean further “radical changes” for Londoners, particularly in transport and heating, which between them produce around half of the capital’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Centre for London.
London Mayors’ wide responsibilities, set out in the Greater London Authority Act 1999, include preparing plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change, as well as improving air quality, promoting biodiversity, waste management and “ambient” noise reduction.
But as Khan’s statutory London Environment Strategy points out, there’s only so much the Mayor can do: City Hall’s actual powers are limited, and emissions don’t stick to administrative boundaries; King’s College found half the ill-effects of long-term exposure to toxic air were caused by pollution from outside the city, while big ticket items such as cleaning up energy supply are a matter for national government.
“I still only have the powers and resources to deliver less than half the carbon emissions required to reach zero carbon,” Khan told the London Assembly in July. “We still require urgent action by government…as well as devolving powers and resources to London that let us take the bold climate action needed to achieve the target.”
Nevertheless, Khan, who in 2016 promised to be the “greenest Mayor London’s ever had”, is pressing ahead with his challenging targets, and confident enough to be asking “all former Green Party voters” to back him on 6 May.
Sadiq Khan’s record and London’s environment in 2021
The recent period has seen an increasing focus on the environment in London and elsewhere, with the growth of direct action campaigners such as Extinction Rebellion and the majority of London boroughs, along with City Hall, now declaring “climate emergencies”.
Institutional concern is matched by Londoners themselves: 82 per cent concerned about climate change, 40 per cent very concerned, and almost six in 10 more worried than they were a year before, according to London Councils polling in late 2020.
The comparative position of London is fairly positive: the 3.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide produced per Londoner in 2019 was lower than the UK average and the city was ninth lowest for greenhouse gas emissions out of 63 UK cities and large towns, according to Centre for Cities.
The capital’s large population, relatively more densely packed than elsewhere, plus extensive public transport, fewer private car trips and less heavy industry, all contribute. And carbon emissions are continuing to fall, down in 2016 to a third of 1990 levels.
Trends in air pollution are going the right way as well, with dangerous NO2 levels down by five times the national average since Khan took office due to a combination of City Hall successes in tackling pollution from motor vehicles in particular and relatively slow progress outside the capital.
Monitoring of particulate matter, with the smallest particles, designated PM2.5, the most dangerous to health, also shows improvement, though less dramatic than for NO2 levels, which are affected more directly by policies such as the ULEZ. In 2019, some areas for the first time showed PM2.5 levels below WHO guidelines.
At the same time, NO2 levels above legal limits were still recorded on seven out of 10 Central London roads in 2019, and 99 per cent of Londoners still live in areas exceeding the WHO PM2.5 limit, with worse air quality in more deprived areas, according to 2017 research for City Hall.
The equivalent of some 4,000 adult deaths in London in 2019 was estimated to be attributable to toxic air, while an inquest at the end of last year into the 2013 death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah saw air pollution listed as a cause of death for the first time – a “landmark” moment underlining the need for more action, according to Khan. Government limits remain higher than WHO guidelines, while there’s a growing scientific consensus that there are no “safe” levels of particulate exposure in particular.
On the biodiversity front, the city, already 50 per cent “green”, with 32 per cent of its land area designated as Green Belt or Metropolitan Open Land, has also achieved National Park City status, with some 330,000 more trees planted since 2016, 400 hectares made greener, and the Green Belt broadly protected through City Hall’s London Plan, though many Londoners still have too far to go to get to a park or public open space. The Plan is also driving new standards for commercial as well as residential developments to be zero carbon, and to deliver net gains in biodiversity.
But significant challenges remain, including the risks of a “car-led” recovery as the city unlocks, and Khan’s own target for the capital to become zero carbon by 2030, two decades ahead of the government’s target. More action – and funding – is needed on many fronts where progress has been slow: increasing active travel, by foot, bike or public transport, driving less and encouraging the switch to cleaner vehicles.
And with natural gas, London’s main domestic and commercial fuel source for heating, creating 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and 22 per cent of NO2 emissions, a huge push on insulating London’s buildings and providing low or zero carbon heating is essential.
There are political issues too, as the heated debates around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and Khan’s Streetspace programme shows, while the Mayor’s target of 80 per cent of trips by active travel by 2041 looks increasingly unachievable, despite more cycle lanes and 430 new “School Streets”.
Electric cars are expensive, and while London now has some 5,000 charging points, 44,000 are needed by 2030. Current plans will see the capital’s bus fleet fully zero carbon only in 2037.
London homes and businesses are over-reliant on gas heating, and 35 per cent of homes do not reach adequate energy efficiency standards. Insulation and replacement heating systems are prohibitively costly for many, yet schemes to help businesses and homeowners have faltered in the absence of regulatory incentives.
The government’s flagship scheme supporting replacing gas boilers with low carbon heat pumps has seen just 66 installations a year since 2014, according to the Carbon Trust, while Khan’s Cleaner Heat Cashback scheme subsidising small businesses replacing their old boilers has closed after helping just 19 companies.
There has been better progress with new homes, but still only 35 per cent of those in London homes are properly insulated. “Retrofits are not yet being delivered at the pace required to meet 2050 net zero carbon targets, let alone 2030,” a report to the Mayor concluded last month.
Attention has therefore turned to the government, not only for support to decarbonise homes and workplaces, but also to push ahead with wider plans on energy supply and regulation. “The Mayor will need more powers and funding from national government. That is the only way to tackle this most urgent issue,” Khan’s “Carbon Pathway” report noted in 2018.
Interestingly, the current Mayor is not the first to look to Whitehall. On air pollution, for example, local authorities could “only do so much and the government needed to step in,” Boris Johnson’s deputy for environment and energy said back in 2015.
Keeping on digging?
Tackling air pollution and countering climate change are objectives shared by the four main candidates for the mayoralty, but the Silvertown Tunnel scheme reveals a clear dividing line, with the Green and Liberal Democrat candidates pledged to scrap the project. It’s a position that reaches further across the political spectrum, with local Labour leaders among those calling for a rethink on what would be the largest new road scheme in the capital for many years.
The scheme long predates Khan’s mayoralty, and was approved as “national” infrastructure by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling in 2018, but it has increasingly come to be seen as out of step with the climate emergency agenda.
For City Hall and Transport for London (TfL) the twin-bore dual carriageway tunnel will provide an important new connection across the river, relieving regular jams at the 120-year old Blackwall Tunnel, supporting business and jobs, and helping to “reduce the environmental impact of traffic congestion” in an already heavy trafficked area.
The £2 billion plus cost of the scheme will be met by toll charges on both the new tunnel and the Blackwall, which would also, according to TfL, keep vehicle demand within capacity across the area and mitigate against induced traffic – their response to the “more roads produce more traffic” argument which has become orthodox in the capital over the past 40 years.
For its many opponents, now including 51 academics and other experts who put their names to an open letter to Khan and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps this week, the tunnel can “only contribute to the UK’s excessive greenhouse gas emissions”, and skew “London’s transport system further towards roads, and exacerbating local air pollution problems” rather than “modal shift and public transport”.
With contracts signed and construction underway, Khan is pressing ahead. But the campaign against the tunnel, like the conflict over LTNs introduced at pace last year, highlights the difficult challenges for policy-makers of going green while balancing other priorities. Labour-controlled Harrow Council is now planning to remove all its LTNs.
The Silvertown Tunnel’s critics point to the possible long-term impacts on transport demand of the Covid-19 pandemic and to support across political divides for a wider “green” recovery. New UK targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78 per cent from 1990 levels, announced this week, were linked by the Prime Minister to a boost to green business and technology, “laying the foundations for decades of economic growth in a way that creates thousands of jobs”.
Khan is on the same track, already announcing £10 million towards his “Green New Deal”, and pledging a further £40 million if re-elected – investment which City Hall claims would support some 170,000 “green” jobs. Economic recovery and tackling climate change are coming together in the “build back better” mantra, at national and city level.
Encouraging investment, private and public, to boost the technology and supply chains needed if UK aspirations, let alone the more challenging London targets, are to be met, will be crucial. It forms a significant part of the work of Khan’s Sustainable Development Commission. However, as Khan frequently points out, more regional powers and more government funding are required, not only at national level but also when it comes to investing in green transport in the capital. TfL’s purse strings are currently firmly controlled by Whitehall.
But with increasingly shared understanding of the climate change challenge, a focus on shared ambitions offers the opportunity for more common ground, more cooperation on environmental goals, and possibly less confrontation between London, the government and even the rest of the country, for whoever takes over the mayoralty next month.
Photograph by Omar Jan.
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