Visions Jonathon from Forum for the Future

Jonathon from Forum for the Future

every city, rich world or poor world, will need to move towards an ultra-low-carbon economy as fast as possible


I’ve always been pretty dubious about ‘visions’ if they let people off the hook by prioritising ‘nice to have’ elements over ‘must have’ elements. Which is why I’d like to focus on a vision for London in the post-Paris context. 

I’m referring of course to the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris last year. By near-universal agreement, this was a pretty extraordinary event, where, for the very first time, world leaders seriously got their heads around the threat of runaway climate change. They confirmed the need for every country to do everything in its power to limit the average temperature increase by the end of the century to no more than 2oC, and then, even more remarkably, to aim for an even lower threshold of 1.5oC. 

You may think the difference between 2oC and 1.5oC doesn’t sound like much. However, the difference is massive. Forget all that political stuff about targets and deadlines and so on, and just think carbon budgets. Here’s what 1.5oC means from a carbon budget point of view: 

Scientists have calculated that we can put no more than 650 billion tonnes of Carbon into the atmosphere if we want to stay below that 1.5oC threshold. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, we’ve already put 550 billion tonnes into the atmosphere, leaving a residual ‘budget’ of just 100 billion tonnes. At the moment, we emit about 10 billion tonnes per annum. Which means, putting it as starkly as people need to hear it, that our remaining budget will be all used up in just ten years’ time!

I doubt that a single world leader understood the implications of that in Paris. But they will by 2020, as will all City Mayors – including the Mayor of London, whoever he or she may be at that time. 

So why such a tedious preamble to my short vision? Quite simply, to point out that no vision for London is worth the time it took either to dream it up or to receive it if it ignores the mandate from Paris: that every city, rich world or poor world, will need to move towards an ultra-low-carbon economy as fast as possible. And those decisions have to start right now, given the length of time that it takes for infrastructure decisions to work their way through the system.

Cities like London will be expected to take the lead.

Take transport, for starters. Cities like London will be expected to take the lead. By 2030, working together, governments and City Mayors will have to have eliminated new sales of all petrol and diesel vehicles. Almost all vehicles (buses, cars, taxis, vans, trucks etc) will need to be either all-electric or using hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Absolute priority will need to be given to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Between now and then, London’s sub-optimal congestion charge will be scrapped and replaced by a radical (ie genuinely behaviour-changing) greenhouse gas protocol. 

For the first time in a very long time, the air that people breathe will then be unpolluted. Thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions will have been avoided. Streets will be safer, kids will play outside across large parts of the city zoned primarily for people, not for cars. Suburbs will be ‘regreened’, with more space set aside for trees, parks, city farms and mini-market gardens. 

And all that starts with one little figure: 1.5oC. If London (and every other major city in the world) takes that little figure seriously, right now, the lives of more than seven billion people (that’s roughly 80% of a global population of what will be nine billion people living in cities in 2050) will be transformed.