London's new mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing forward with zero-carbon homes.

A significant part of the Paris Agreement reached at COP21 in December 2015 was the effective mobilisation of state-level, regional and city authorities to drive and deliver climate action, often independently of their national governments’ policies.

A recent example is the decision by London’s new Labour mayor Sadiq Khan to continue with a target of mandating zero carbon new home building despite the recent decision by the Conservative government to scrap this requirement from 2018.

We touched on this story three weeks ago. Its final act was that, despite the government suffering two defeats in the House of Lords, in the House of Commons (which has the final say), it eventually defeated the amendment which would have kept the zero carbon rule by a margin of just four votes. In its place the government introduced a weak clause committing to a review of the energy efficiency standard for new homes in building regulations with no timescales or specific criteria.

The reaction of Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, was disappointed but resolute: “Devoid of any such legislation, the government’s legislative landscape is in danger of locking in carbon emissions for future generations but I take comfort from the level of support we’ve seen over the past weeks. At UK-GBC, we will continue to push for higher standards during the review of building regulations. We will also work to provide those showing leadership – including devolved administrations and the new mayor of London – a strong business case for driving down carbon.”

The mayor, through the Greater London Authority, has just issued new London Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance and Energy Planning Guidance, which sets out the carbon targets for new residential developments in the capital. Proposals received by the mayor on or after 1 October 2016 must be zero carbon (as defined in guidance provided by the GLA) for residential development and 35 per cent below building regulations (Part L 2013) for commercial development.

London has decided to ignore Westminster, carrying on as if nothing has changed. It had already tested the viability of “zero carbon” in the building industry and judged that the introduction of the standard would not compromise housing viability, adding between just one per cent and 1.4 per cent to build costs, in return for lifelong energy savings. The GLA believes that this approach will also help ensure that the development industry in the capital is prepared for the introduction of “Nearly Zero Energy Buildings” by 2020.

The criteria stipulate that the buildings themselves only have to reach 35 per cent below the emissions standards in the building regulations; the remainder can be compensated by offsetting it through a cash contribution to the relevant local borough, which will ring fence it to secure delivery of carbon dioxide savings elsewhere. This assumes a price of £60 (AU$119) a tonne of carbon dioxide for a period of 30 years. The carbon offset policy has already been in the London Plan for several years.

This requirement only applies to “homes forming part of major development applications” – planning applications for smaller residential developments will not have to apply the zero carbon target. How many homes will this affect? Khan stated during his election campaign earlier this year that he will “ensure a minimum of 80,000 new homes a year” (the current rate is 25,000 a year).

Looking to the future, the London Plan will continue to push for onsite carbon emission reduction measures to exceed the national building regulation targets.

What about industry?

Buildings are one thing, but industry is quite different. Many cities and regions contain heavy industry, and these will also need to decarbonise.

Cities around the world are being supported in their plans to make an energy transition to a low carbon economy by The Climate Group. Since their initiative was announced earlier this year, partner regions from across Europe, North America and Australia have joined in, including Alberta, the Basque Country, California, Hauts-de-France, Lombardy, Minnesota, Silesia, South Australia, Upper Austria and Wales.

The latest to announce its intentions is the highly industrialised area of Düsseldorf in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, which it did at the launch of the Climate Group’s Energy Transition Platform on 25 May. This is one of the most economically important states of Europe and the country’s largest industrial state. It generates a third of the country’s electrical power and correspondingly the same proportion of national emissions.

Johannes Remmel

At the launch of the plan, Johannes Remmel, North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister for Climate Protection, Environment, Agriculture, Conservation and Consumer Protection, said: “Even as an industry heavy region, we strongly believe that decarbonising and growing our economy go hand-in-hand. There is a clear competitive advantage to be had in driving low carbon growth, and while there are challenges to overcome along the way, there are also significant opportunities to be seized.”

As part of the Energy Transition Platform, the Düsseldorf local government will analyse already successful comparable models elsewhere and see how they can be adapted to local needs. The platform as a whole aims to build international partnerships to help peers learn from each other’s experiences to accelerate the transition towards a low-emissions future.

Dr Lars Grotewold, director of the Centre for Climate Change at Stiftung Mercator, another partner in the Düsseldorf plan, said, “State and regional governments are a decisive governance level for the implementation of national policies and international guidelines, and vice versa they can drive the ambition on overarching governance levels. Finding and scaling solutions for low carbon growth for highly industrialised regions is pivotal for delivering the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Habitat III

The trend of regions and cities accelerating change independently has long roots, going back to Local Agenda 21 following the Rio Agreement in the early 1990s. It has been given a boost following urban areas being given their own Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations.

We can expect to see it accelerating leading up to and following the important Habitat III conference – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development to take place in Quito, Ecuador, from 17–20 October later this year. These conferences occur only once every two decades and set vital agendas for these timescales.

Quito, Ecuador

Presided over by Dr Joan Clos, the Secretary-General, and former mayor of Barcelona, it will include eight plenary meetings and six high-level round-table sessions plus multi-stakeholder segments, discussing issues related to housing and sustainable urban development.

One of its aims is to help systematise the alignment between cities and towns and national planning objectives by bringing together member states, multilateral organisations, local governments, the private sector and civil society to reduce inequality and improve the sustainability of our fast-urbanising world.

David Thorpe is the author of:

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