On the 20th of June, delegates are meeting in Rio to discuss the green economy in the context of sustainable development, poverty eradication and institutional frameworks for sustainable development. I’m looking at sustainability in London and what we should be thinking about when we talk about creating a green economy here.
For the first time in human history, there are more people living in urban areas than rural areas. Add climate change and a growing population to the equation, and this equals a huge stress on the potential for sustainable development.
London where I live, as well as the southeast of England, is currently experiencing the driest period for 50 years resulting in a hosepipe ban which is due to be introduced on the 5th of April. This week we experienced temperatures I cannot remember having witnessed in the UK in March before; today and yesterday (29th and 28th of March red) London was basking in temperatures reaching 23 degrees. This is highly unusual and is causing rivers and reservoirs to run dry, and fish have had to be moved due very low water levels rendering them unable to breed and thrive. Adding insult to injury, the county of Yorkshire in Northern England was yesterday also declared as being in a state of drought. It is not just the UK facing way above average seasonal temperatures; several states across the US are also feeling the pinch of extreme hot weather, an example being in New England where CBS Boston meteorologist Terry Eliasen here describes how unseasonal the weather is at the moment, and that it more accurately reflects the temperatures generally experienced in July.
What does this have to do with building a sustainable and green economy you might ask? By referring to the ‘green economy ‘, most people assume you are talking about generating renewable energy and becoming less reliant on fossil fuels. Don’t get me wrong, this does play a massive role in developing a green economy, but equally a lot of focus and investment should be lent to climate change mitigation measures, how to use our resources better and reduce waste. In my opinion, the below measures are ones that we should start thinking about in London immediately, as surely there can be no doubt that climate change has arrived on our doorsteps.
1) Massive investment rainwater harvesting and water butts: Using as an example the current drought in the South East of England and extreme temperatures that have swept across the US, we can’t hide from the fact that climate change is now an issue that is currently affecting Western countries as well as the developing world, and we need to be far more clever about how we use our resources. Water is the perfect place to start. It is often a neglected issue but something that leaves us extremely vulnerable if we don’t have it. Firstly, we need to reduce our reliance on water companies; harvesting our own water, in the same way as we have recently started to ‘harvest; our own energy. The government should enforce a law to install water harvesting in all new buildings and set up a scheme to encourage existing households to do the same.
2) An ambitious tree planting scheme: We often don’t consider the importance of trees; apart from the fact that seeing them make us feel happy they have several other benefits too. Big cities like London are very vulnerable to heat waves and the temperature in London is generally two degrees hotter than outside London. One of the reasons is that tarmac absorbs heat and makes it very hot in the summer when the sun is at its highest levels. This type of heat can’t escape to anywhere in London unlike for example seaside cities. By planting trees on roads and streets alike, shadows are created which shields the sun from reaching the tarmac and thus absorbing heat. Trees also absorb and store carbon. Massive tree planting schemes should be put in place in the capital, in addition to encouraging the development of roof gardens on London roofs that also will add natural insulation.
3) An overhaul and massive investment in energy efficiency: The UK energy and climate change minister Ed Davey, has made this a priority and as it should be. The UK is lagging well behind other EU countries in terms of efficiency and it’s vital that he address this in addition to strengthening building regulations to more accurately reflect energy efficiency needs and enforcing laws to make them as carbon neutral as possible. This will go some way towards meeting the UK’s energy and climate change targets.
4) Government to invest more in the co-operative movement: The same Ed Davey hinted at a recent Guardian open weekend debate, hosted by Guardian’s head of environment Damian Carrington, that the UK government has previously neglected the co-operative movement and that it’s in fact something we need to encourage the growth of. In a recent blog of mine, I covered the launch of Brixton Energy, the first urban community owned solar project which is the perfect example of a successful urban co-operative model. There is a potentially booming co-operative movement happening in the UK which reflects everything from transport to food and energy. As Mr Davey said himself, the government should step up and throw their support behind these initiatives.
5) Keep encouraging investment in the booming solar industry as well as other micro energy generation such as wind and ground source heat pumps: As I stated earlier, there has been a massive boom in the solar industry, mainly encouraged by the government’s feed in tariff (FIT) scheme and solar PV prices coming down. Unfortunately, the government has also slashed the FIT returns, however PV prices still keep dropping. The slash of the FIT has created some uncertainty in the industry, but it must keep its momentum up in order to not scare investment away from the UK. But we also need to look at other microscale renewable energy generation, such as ground source heat pumps, wind and of course solar thermal – all of which are technologies that haven’t taken off yet. We do need to focus ourselves as a country, on large scale renewable energy projects to keep weaning us off our addiction to fossil fuels and nuclear energy. We must also keep the growing investment in our offshore wind projects, which the UK is the current world leader in, but that position is being threatened by China and the US, as well as as onshore wind energy and the emerging technologies like wave and tidal power. Many companies and countries are looking towards the UK for investing in these areas.
When the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, announced his 2012 budget last week, while there was a little mention of renewable energy there was nothing whatsoever mentioned about climate change and sustainability, even though it is evident that we’re experiencing direct impacts of it right now. In fact, the Chancellor is going in the complete opposite direction by giving tax breaks to the most polluting companies and industries. This is not a position the UK can afford to take. If we don’t properly deal with the challenges facing us now, it could end up being a lot more costly in the long run.
The above are some of things I think are urgent and we should work on, London is here given as an example but these could and should work as a global model.