‘The new paradigm in terms of renewables in cities is waste’

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London Vice-Mayor Nicky Gavron plans to spearhead decentralised generation in the UK’s capital so that every household can eventually produce its own energy and cut CO2 emissions. New fines for polluting trucks and coaches are also planned for next year, she told EURACTIV in an interview.

Nicky Gavron is vice-mayor of London in charge of spatial development and strategic planning.


To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The EU summit in March agreed on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% ‘unilaterally’ by 2020 and up to 30% if other major emitting countries such as the US join in. What will be London’s contribution to achieving these targets?

It is very good that targets are being set, and it is important that the whole movement towards meeting targets really gathers momentum.

However, the reality is that the targets are not good enough. If we’re going to set targets, then they’ve got to keep pace with the science. And science is saying that, by 2050, we could be at 4-plus degrees centigrade, and all of us know that what we’re trying to do is keep it to 2 degrees centigrade. 

In that case, then, London – along with many other cities of the world which are on coasts or estuaries – would be largely underwater. So we have taken a much more aggressive approach to targets, and we’re saying that we have to reach 60% by 2025. 

We’ve set up a climate-change action plan to show how we could meet those targets, and what we’re saying is that without government help, we could meet 30% by 2025, but to get to 60%, we need more help.

Cities are actually the largest emitters of greenhouse gases with around 75% of all CO2 emissions in Europe (from energy, buildings, transport, etc). Is it not a bigger challenge for large cities such as London to cut down their emissions?

Yes, in fact London has a huge responsibility. However, if you look at the carbon footprint per capita, in dense cities it is actually not as great as you might think. It is the sprawling cities where the carbon footprint is greater. 

But the message here is that the world is urbanising very quickly. 75% of energy is consumed and used in cities, and around 80% of CO2 is the responsibility of urban areas, worldwide. So, if you don’t reverse the trend in cities, you quite simply don’t save the planet. 

Also, cities are highly vulnerable to climate change – to all the different impacts, wherever they are in the world: water shortages, droughts, floods, flash storms, and so on. So, we have a huge responsibility and a huge motivation, and then of course, there are also the opportunities – and there are a lot of them.

Is the current co-operation between cities – the C40 alliance of which London is a member – also the result of the fact that you’re disappointed by what’s happening at UN level?

Well, you know, we can’t wait, can we? If you’re a city leader, you just have to act, you have to make decisions – you have to be pragmatic. UN delegations do not include cities, for instance, when they meet at the COP/MOP [the annual UN climate conference].

Would you like that to be the case?

Absolutely, yes, we are arguing for that. It is clear that when it comes to practical action on the ground, cities have to be centre stage. That’s because they have the planning ability. They in fact run most of the environmental infrastructure – and build it. The new environmental infrastructure for the 21st century has got to be low carbon – it’s got to be re-done. The lot of it – energy, water, waste. They also run transport. They also have that density of property, and activity, and population, which means that it is going to be easier – in a way – to reduce emissions in cities. 

Yes, but cities such as London don’t start with a blank sheet – you already have existing buildings, streets and a transport network – so you have to transform existing infrastructure. Doesn’t that make it more challenging, and what are you actually doing about this?

Of course it’s more challenging than building a new city from scratch, as long as the new cities are using our experience and leap-frogging where we are, for instance in the Dong Tang quarter in Shanghai. If you look at the expansion of Curitiba  [in Brazil], that was brilliantly done – and that was a long time ago.

So, what we’re looking at in London is new build, but new build is only 1% of the floor space of London. So if you count in retro-fitting and refurbishment, then there are around four planning applications to one of new build, so you can do a lot through planning. 

Then you’ve got all the existing buildings, and we in London have no powers as such for existing buildings, so that’s quite a problem for us, though we’re doing as much as we can. We have a Green Homes programme, and we’re looking at helping Londoners to be as energy-efficient as possible. We’re offering cut-price loft insulation, cut-price cavity wall insulation for those with cavity walls, we’re offering a portal of advice, and we’re offering a pilot on a deep service model of energy efficiency looking at the Canadian model. I said we were magpies – we borrow the best from everywhere, and Canada has a very good model. I put myself on home energy audit to experience it. It was wonderful. We brought their team over to show them what we were doing. We showed it to our government, and they’re backing our pilot. 

We’ve set up a climate-change agency to spearhead decentralised energy into London. We have a pilot programme looking at a deeper service model of energy efficiency – including micro-generation – for the able-to-pay sector. 

A lot of people want something that’s choice-rich and hassle-free. Especially regarding new build, hassle is a big factor. People tell us: “I’ll do the right thing, but just tell me how to do it – and get somebody to do it for me.”

We are also running a do-it-yourself planet relief. We’re saying to people in their homes: “Turn off your television, your DVD, your stereo – cut the plug, don’t leave it on standby. Turn down your thermostat. Turn down your washing machine or washing programmes. Turn off the light.”

Do you feel that these awareness-raising campaigns have an effect?

Yes, they are very, very important. It’s about leadership at every level. You’ve got to work at every single level. You can’t leave any stone unturned. 

What are you doing to raise awareness on the business side?

Right at the beginning when I started, I went round businesses and I said: “Look, it is the market that has got to deliver a low-carbon London. What are you going to do?” And they said: “Well, we’ll do it eventually, but we’ll not do it as fast as you want, unless you give us the confidence with political leadership and public action.” 

So, we set up the climate-change agency, and that is going to help ‘green’ the energy supply in London. 

I have to explain that a little bit. The majority of emissions globally come from inefficient power stations, whether they are coal, gas, oil, nuclear – whatever. These power stations lose up to 70% of their primary energy. They also waste all their heat, so there is a double loss. 

We are looking at replacing these. Of course you are not going to completely replace power stations or the grid. But you do not need to invest as much in new power stations or in an ageing infrastructure if you go for the new infrastructure – which is the energy revolution – which is generating your energy locally.

We hope this can be done from renewables as soon as possible– and transitionally, with liquid natural gas. It involves using the heat for heating and then using it again for cooling, through heat-wired absorption chillers.

Now, we want to find ways of doing it under clusters of refurbished buildings, as well as new build, and of course we want to move into existing neighbourhoods wherever we can. 

And we are looking at a whole range of renewables in different combinations, but the new paradigm in terms of renewables in cities is waste. We have all got landfill problems. What you can do is take the methane off, and you can use the methane as a gas.

However, incineration has never been looked at through the CO2 prism. Incineration actually produces a lot of CO2 – it is no more efficient than a coal-fired power station, because it burns. And if you do not take the heat off, it is doubly inefficient. So we are looking at taking our organic waste – which is a very big part of the London dustbin – and putting it through anaerobic digestion to create composting and biogas. 

We are then looking at taking our residual waste and putting it also through anaerobic digestion or gasification, and that gives you some CO2, but nothing compared with incineration. And it produces a very big market, if you do it to scale, in renewable gas, and in liquid fuels. So that is a new way forward, and we want 15% of our renewables to come from our waste. And that is a non-intermittent source. We are obviously looking at tidal too, we are looking at solar, we are looking at wind – we are looking at all sorts of things.

During Green Week, we heard Commissioner Wallström saying that the fight for sustainability will be won or lost in the cities. What are you doing there?

What we put forward for the C40 [city alliance] are procurement allowances, combining our purchasing muscle so that we can bring down the price of low-carbon technologies and command volume in terms of supply. We announced our first programme in New York – in partnership with the Clinton Foundation – which is an energy-efficient retrofitting programme for buildings.

So, to go back to your question, we think procurement alliances are something that we can work on together with cities and the EU. 

Have you been talking with European cities about getting more influence into the EU process on climate change and energy security?

We are just embarking on doing that. Our first thing was to work with other large cities in the world at the C40. 

I chaired the session on decentralised energy at the New York [C40] summit, and we had Rotterdam and Copenhagen there, as well as ConEd – the New York utility – and [French utility] EDF, who are partnering us on our climate-change agency.

What was the discussion about?

What was interesting there were the discussions we had about the barriers to decentralised energy in cities.

Which are they?

There are EU barriers. It is very interesting that Copenhagen and Rotterdam both have some local power – a heat law in Copenhagen – which actually allows them to do what they have done, which is to develop a huge network of decentralised energy in their cities. 

But how does that work in practice? Does it mean that people get solar panels on their roofs?

Well, that’s enabled them to do all the regulation to create a heating network right across the city. It would be very difficult for us to do that.

Plus you normally don’t have that sort of responsibility…

No, we don’t. In London we do not have that responsibility, but we can enable it to happen. 

What we do need, is that barriers be removed. It is exactly the same for ConEd in New York, and after last year’s big blackout in New York, Mayor Bloomberg is now extremely interested in decentralised energy.

Because of course you know what it means – it means that the whole of south London or part of Manhattan does not black out, because you have neighbourhood islands, and you can trade between these islands, and you could balance loads, and you could complement the grid too. It is extremely efficient – both in terms of CO2 and in terms of money.

And what happens is that if you are doing this, you are really creating a network. I always compare that network as being like the mobile phone is to the landline of centralised generation. And [former] UK secretary of state for the environment David Miliband – who is now very enthusiastic about decentralised energy – wants to see the approach rolled out to other cities in the UK, and is comparing it in this term – ‘the laptop to the mainframe computer’. 

So people are beginning to understand, but there are huge vested interests against it, and these barriers need not be there, because in fact, everyone is going to gain from this.

What are these barriers?

There has got to be an energy revolution in thinking. People have got to understand that they are going to earn their brownie points from saving energy, as opposed to selling it, or selling it in huge supplies.

In our country, you actually get rewarded – the more energy you use, the less you pay. It is quite perverse. So, we need to turn these kinds of perverse incentives around. 

There are barriers in Britain to the amount you can put in on decentralised energy in domestic areas. You cannot actually do more than a thousand units at a time, and of course that does not work with existing buildings – it is alright with new build, but you cannot really completely do a whole neighbourhood in that way. 

At the moment, the price that you get for your electricity when you put it back into the grid is about 3p, whereas you pay about 8 or 9p – maybe 11p, it depends what you are paying.

Are you saying that more regulation is needed on prices?

That’s right. For instance, Germany has a feed-in tariff for solar power, and they have a hundred times more of that form of energy than we do because of it. So what we need to see Europe doing, is taking the highest standards and making them the norm. You have to do that.

You mean feed-in tariffs being the norm at European level?

Yes, it should be the norm at European level, in my view. You know, it won’t have to be the norm forever, but it will get the market going. It will bring down the price. If you do that, the price will tumble for solar electricity, and other forms of micro-generation. Why shouldn’t homes become mini power stations? Feeding into the distribution grid – that is the way forward. And, if you look at the continuum, it goes from the single home to the bigger development, to the neighbourhood.

The congestion charge is one of the measures that London is most famous for and that other cities are now imitating. What is the next thing that you will be doing to inspire other cities?

The next thing we are doing is next year. We are introducing a low-emission zone for the whole of Greater London.

That means taking the most polluting vehicles – not cars at this point, because we have other methods of dealing with that – but the big polluting lorries, taxis, buses and coaches, and making sure that their engines are the best Euro-standard.

And we will be ratcheting it up. I think we will be beginning with Euro-3, but we’ll be ratcheting it up to Euro-4 very quickly. So, that’s for the whole of London – and the fines are going to be such that you would not enter London if you were polluting. 

I also want to add something about the congestion charge. When we introduced it was all about air quality and we weren’t thinking so much about CO2. But when you look at congestion charging through the prism of climate change, you can see what a difference you can make – because you can incentivise clean-fuel cars. What we have done in London is to exempt hybrids, and we have exempted electric cars.

What we are doing now is looking at a variable charge on congestion charging. The potential there is to have road charging with differential charges for different times of day, different journey lengths, and of course, tied to your engine size, and the cleanliness of the fuel.

Don’t you think that at some point there could be a backlash in terms of voter support for these kinds of policies?

Fundamentally, we have got to make it easy for people. The congestion charge was brought in on the teeth of hysterical press opposition at the time. Less than 50% of the population wanted it, but in fact, very quickly it got good coverage, and people really began to see what was meant. 

You may know that Mrs Thatcher once famously said: “If you’re seen on a bus after 30, you’re a loser in life.” You only got people on low incomes and women and students and so on, on buses. 

The bus industry was on its knees when we inherited it. We invested, we took over the enforcement, and now, people in pinstripe suits come up to me and say: “You know, deputy mayor, I would never now – never ever – use my car. The bus is so reliable, and it is comfortable, and I get there so fast.” 

So, there is something to be said for regulation that changes behaviour and changes attitudes.

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