Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lessons from London

I had the great good fortune of attending a lecture given by Nicky Gavron, former deputy mayor of London at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge yesterday. Her topic? London's comprehensive climate action plan. There were many valuable lessons here, most notably, the importance of leadership. Several of us from Brookline were there, David Lowe, Cynthia Snow and Bruce Wolff that I recognized, perhaps there were others.

She began her talk with some sobering statistics. The climate change we are experiencing now in the form of climate disruptions, etc. is from emissions released in the 1950's! The persistence of greenhouse gases are impossible to mitigate. Next, she told us that what was 1 year's worth of emissions in the 1950's are now released in 6 weeks. In sum, we have less than one decade to stabilize our emissions to avoid catastrophic consequences.

This was the extent of the doom and gloom however, because Nicky is a doer. In fact I think she thrives on the challenge of it all and is, with her former mayor and the rest of her staff and constituency, succeeding in remarkable ways. Like all successful strategies theirs is a top down and bottom up strategy. Multi-faceted and interlocking. Complex and chaotic. Marshalling the forces of the law, persuasion, co-operation, education, experimentation, data-gathering, pricing and procurement, all in the service of reducing carbon emissions, their climate change plan has improved the quality of life for London's 7.5 million citizens and spurred a new economic prosperity. London has the fastest growing economy of all the G7 cities.

This didn't happen overnight of course. It began with the 1992 Rio summit. In 2000, London directly elected their mayor who came in with the mission and mandate to respond in a substantive way to climate change. The mayor is overseen by a council of 25 elected representatives. 14 of these are from geographical districts. 11 are at-large. Two points seem important about this. A strong mayor is essential to keeping everyone on point and councils should have a good number of at-large members. This later one is so because there needs to be a strong non-parochial voice speaking for the overarching goal of carbon reduction and the livability of the city as a whole. I won't go into the implications for Brookline of these two points here, other than to say they are both ideas that have relevance and are worth considering as we face the daunting challenges of the 21st century.

Nicky believes that with their plan they can achieve a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025. Their goal is a 60% reduction, which would be made achievable in their estimation if national policies included, carbon pricing, renewable energy investment and the removal of barriers (regulatory and practical) to local energy production. All this within the context of a population
increase of 1 million people.

Each listener had their own area of interest I am sure, and there was much food for thought. For me, I was eager to hear about their transportation and land use policies and practices. London has a strict green belt surrounding it, "hemming in" any future growth, (past foresight!) and has also adopted a policy of not building on any remaining open space within the core area either. Theirs is a strategy focused on co-locating transit access and development, "densifying" existing growth areas where transportation is available. Substantial investment in transit both from a "hard ware" point of view and on the customer service end of things preceded a highly successful congestion pricing plan. Now in its fifth year, the congestion pricing plan reduced the number of cars entering the center city by 36%. Congestion itself was reduced by 25% and an expansion of the program to the west is being considered. Significant reductions in accidents and pollution were realized almost immediately and retail sales figures have in fact grown in the core at twice the rate of the remaining area's average. I believe this must be because a less congested core is once again an attractive shopping destination.

Of those who previously drove 55-60% switched to buses or transit. There was no significant shift to off-pricing hours. There are many details that have made the program successful. A few key points are: 1) Draconian enforcement of the bus lanes, (no one parks in them, thus assuring decent service), 2) TDM is practiced at major employers, including personalized travel coaching , 3) All new revenues generated from the fees goes towards improving public transportation.

Ah, we here in the land of un-coordinated overlapping agencies, unplanned development and independent fiefdoms can, in many ways, simply look upon such logical and systematic action with longing and envy. But, hope does spring eternal. At the Q & A I had the opportunity to ask her if their transport strategies included any kind of co-ordinated parking measures. Here is what she said: 1) Well, it is incredibly expensive to park in London, I don't even know how much it is, because I haven't even tried it for so long. (Just the other night, our presenter, Jason Schrieber spent a great deal of time talking to us about parking as commodity, set the price right and travel mode choice will be altered, I would have liked to ask her if these were primarily private or public spaces), 2) Parking enforcement is a big issue in the boroughs (suburbs) out side of the charging border) where it must be strictly applied, (sound familiar?), 3) There are vast amounts of subterranean parking underneath London, (didn't get to ask her, but wondered if this was a result of the bomb shelters built in WWII?) so they could not really do much to limit parking, and 4) They are reviewing their parking requirements because they think they are too high especially for residential development in the boroughs where they are dismayed by the loss of yards to parking and have instituted a requirement for 10 sq. meters of open space per unit.

21% of CO2 are from surface transport in a city. Nicky then went on to tell us about the remaining 71% of emissions that come from buildings in cities and ways that they are tackling that. It almost all comes down to energy, mostly for heating and cooling. When I was putting together my talk about sustainable Brookline neighborhoods, I had the idea that the scale of our neighborhoods might lend themselves to small-scale energy production and distribution. Surprisingly, this is a keystone of the London Plan. The benefits to decentralism are multitudinous, including redundancy on the grid, ability to adapt technologies to specific environmental conditions, the potential of combined heat and power generation (where "waste" heat in the form of hot water is used locally), and energy savings from less loss in transmission, etc.

What was really exciting about their whole outlook on the energy technology front was that they took up the mantel of being the driver of innovation. By that I mean that they understood that because of the size of their city, they could, through requiring certain energy innovations such as levels of efficiency and on-site renewable energy generation etc. they could actually stimulate the market to innovate in order to meet that demand. She called it "leap-frogging". I think we would call it jump-starting. And she mentioned several times how we, in the Boston area are sitting in the hot bed of innovation and could surely benefit from just such an approach. Here, her faith in, at least the ingenuity end of things, is, I believe well put. By creating the market for the products, the government has secured the risk! Brilliant. Why wait for the 20 years the companies tell us it will take to make these things work, deploying the infrastructure for recharging, or refining endless prototypes, etc., etc. Here she has truly grasped the importance of the large cities, which , especially if they work in consort with one another, can play a huge role in combating climate change.

She mentioned too, the role for smaller cities, stressing that it is up to us. All the types of decisions that truly have an effect on CO2 emissions occur largely on the local level, such as: How energy efficient are our buildings being built and renovated? How well-coordinated are land-use and transportation decisions? What behaviors can individual households change to reduce emissions and how can we support those?

Most convincing was her belief in the fact that aggressively addressing climate change and thereby securing her cities energy security, mobility and prosperity, she was securing its long-term viability and livability.

For anyone wishing to learn more about London's Climate Action Plan here are some useful links:
The London Plan (the over-arching policy document)

The London Climate Change Action Plan:

Congestion Charge Impacts Monitoring Fifth Annual Report (warning for data junkies only)

UN Climate Action Programme piece: (Excellent essay by Nicky about role of cities)