Climate crisis: The 5 biggest environmental challenges facing London as COP26 kicks off

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London is facing a set of climate challenges (PA)
London is facing a set of climate challenges (PA)

World leaders will hope that the COP26 Conference in Glasgow this coming weekend will prove to be a milestone in the fight against global warming.

Boris Johnson has admitted that it is “touch and go” as to whether the conference will prove a success following reports that multiple leaders – including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping – will not attend.

There is no path towards Net Zero that does not run through London, as the capital is by far the country’s largest source of emissions – owing to its size, population and the extent of its economic activity.

The expansion of the ULEZ area last Monday has shown Sadiq Khan is willing to put the climate at the heart of his policy agenda, but environmental activists and public health experts want the Mayor to go further.

The Evening Standard spoke to a range of experts on the five biggest climate issues facing London – and what is being done to combat them.

Air Pollution

The ULEZ expansion to include areas within the North and South Circular last week proved a divisive decision, but Londoners are in broad agreement that air pollution in the capital must be tackled.

Nine out of 10 Londoners agreed that the drop in air pollution during the first national lockdown was a positive change, according to a poll by London Councils.

“We are going in the right direction but there are other challenges,” Professor Frank Kelly, a professor of community health and policy at Imperial College London, tells the Standard.

“We have a lot of fast-food restaurants in London and there are hotspots where you can have around half a dozen in one particular street.

“These tend to emit a lot of pollution and there is no regulation at all in this area, which is something I’d like to see.”

Last year, a coroner ruled that air pollution contributed to the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. The tragedy has laid bare how the issue is a matter of life-or-death for the thousands of Londoners with breathing conditions and living in poorer, more polluted areas.

“The air quality gets worse the closer you get to busy roads and the quality of the material used to build social housing often isn’t very good, so polluted air can seep inside," says Prof Kelly.

“Many people on lower incomes in London also don’t own a vehicle, so tragically they suffer the most from air pollution despite contributing to it the least.”

However, Prof Kelly is hopeful that London can tackle the problem moving forward and highlights the gains made in the past five years.

“If you look at Central London, we had pretty horrific NO2 concentrations five years ago. Oxford Street had 100mg per m2 at a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline was 40. But even before the pandemic, this had fallen down towards 40 in a five-year time frame”.

He attributes the fall to several policies introduced in the past decade, including putting low-emission buses on the dirtiest routes and ending the licensing of new diesel taxis. “Just by removing the source of the NO2 you can see it quickly drop,” he adds.

Food Waste

London has made huge strides in tackling the problem of food waste but further action is needed, says Tristram Hunt, an environmental activist and author whose campaign group Feedback has driven changes in supermarket policies.

“The food industry is one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions, so tackling this is urgent – the planet is going to cook if we don’t solve this problem,” he tells the Standard.

“But there is great entrepreneurial spirit invested in tackling this issue.”

Mr Hunt said one of the most exciting policies to come out of London was a limit on junk food advertising on TfL networks introduced by City Hall in 2019.

“Pushing food on people makes them buy more food. People don’t necessarily connect advertising with waste, but they are interconnected,” he says.

“This is why trialling the policy in London is so important, because what happens here often gets rolled out nationally if it works.”

Figures published by sustainability firm WRAP last year showed that food waste had fallen 7 per cent per person between 2015 and 2018.

Mr Hunt said the increased awareness and drop in waste was “inspiring” but called on retailers in London to become more transparent in their reporting of food waste.

“The fact that firms hide this information gets in the way of entrepreneurial investment seeking to solve the problem,” he says.

“Obligatory transparent waste reporting for large food retailers is a very progressive, quadruple-win policy. I think it would be good if it was introduced in London.”

Biodiversity

To anyone living in an area like Hackney Wick or Canary Wharf, the idea that London could be a haven for rare wildlife and fauna seems far-fetched.

In fact, the capital is full to the brim with rare plants and animals. More than 1,500 wildlife sites across the capital are recognised as Sites of Importance for Nature Conversation (SINCS).

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, a research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, says that the climate change crisis and biodiversity are “intertwined” and hopes that nature will be at the centre of the COP26 conference.

“There is a huge amount of biodiversity in London, and a lot of species that are rare in other areas of the UK, such as the stag beetle,” she says.

“But with temperatures rising, these populations are under threat. A higher average temperature, drought and heatwaves mean that water scarcity could become much more of a problem, which would be terrible for wildlife such as dragonflies who depend on water.”

To combat the crisis, Dr Pettorelli is urging policymakers to recognise the interconnectedness of biodiversity and climate change.

“You need to bring together policymakers on both sides to prevent the fragmentation of expertise and create a dialogue,” she says.

“We also need strong legislation which can open the door to projects such as rewilding. This is not traditional restoration but considers the fact that nature needs to reorganise itself.

“I would also like to see more funding for biodiversity. Just having more trees in a city can decrease the effect of heat and heatwaves on people by reducing the temperature. This also works for animals.”

Flooding risk

Londoners living on or near the banks of the Thames have already felt the effects of flooding, with heavy rainfall pummelling the capital in July this year.

Hundreds of people lost their homes and belongings after torrential rainfall caused sewage to burst through doors and squirting up out of toilets. There are more than 200,000 residential and commercial properties in London at risk of flooding from heavy rainfall events, according to City Hall.

Responding to a letter from Merton’s Liberal Democrat Councillors in July, Thames Water said the floods were a one-in-300-year event.

But Lizzie Kendon, a science fellow at the Met Office, warned that the capital could expect a “substantial increase” in extreme weather events if emissions are not drastically reduced.

Just last week, the Thames Barrier was closed for the 200th time to protect the capital from potential flooding.

But it’s not just humans that will suffer, notes Dr Pettorelli. “Flooding caused by climate change could see many animals in London displaced or drowned,” she says.

“If animals such as small mice drown in floods, this also has an impact on predators such as owls and other birds of prey. Many invertebrates also spend the winter in the ground and risk being swept away.”

To combat the problem, the Thames Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC) and other authorities are investing heavily in the improvement of drainage capacity across the capital.

There are also plans to upgrade the Thames Barrier by 2070, which may involve replacing the entire structure.

The switch to eco-friendly homes

The government’s plan to replace gas boilers with low-carbon heat pumps has proved divisive among the British public, despite promises of a £5,000 grant to every household to help make the switch.

By 2028, Britain needs to install 600,000 heat pumps a year to meet its climate change goals, the government said last year.

Officials will hope to install 80,000 in London by this date, according to LondonLovesBusiness.

“While most of our attention in the past has been on ambient pollution, there is an increased focus on what we’re doing in our homes,” says Prof Kelly. “The lockdown has obviously brought a lot of this into perspective.

“If you cook on a gas stove, you’re going to be producing NO2 and particulate pollutants every time you cook. Whereas if you have an electric stove, you will not be producing nearly as many particulates.

“This is why the government and climate experts are proposing removing gas from the energy system inside homes and replacing it with electricity or hydrogen. It will be much cleaner.

“If you think about the angst that we’ve been through trying to cut traffic emissions, it would be sad if emissions in the home took its place.”

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