Environmentalists have long insisted that our current way of life is unsustainable and that radical change is warranted to preserve the future of our planet. But it was not until climate change reached ubiquity amongst the media and public alike that policy makers sat up and took notice. Now, however, they’re doing more than taking notice. London, one of the most influential cities in the world, is becoming a hub for innovation and development of environmental solutions.
London, notorious as one of the dirtiest cities in Europe, owes its less-than-fresh air quality to traffic congestion and overcrowding. In fact, bad air quality could be costing the nation upwards of $13 billion via the poor health it causes. However, the future of the city is not as bleak as it might appear; revolution is stirring in the form of numerous innovations targeted at remedying the capital’s grimy ills. PM10s (especially harmful particulates produced by diesel engines, tires, and brakes among other things) plague the capital, but there are a number of systems being put in place to alleviate these pollutants. The trial of dust suppressants, chemicals that bind airborne particulates to the ground, saw these offending elements reduced by as much as 10%. Green walls are living walls of coarse leaved plants which are springing up in the capital; used in concert with suppressants, these could reduce PM10s by up to 20%.
Local governments, businesses, and communities are embracing the sustainable spirit. Recycling is presented as a duty rather than a choice and the provision of government grants that save not only energy but money are encouraging more households to curb their emissions. Support of up to $5,500 is available to households eligible for The Warm Front scheme, a program in place to make homes across the U.K. “warmer, healthier and more energy efficient." Low-income households, poorly insulated homes, and those without working central heating could benefit from refits to their heating and insulation systems. Adequate insulation, though not as attention-grabbing as a green wall, is a solution that could potentially reduce carbon emissions by as much as 10.8 million tons per year. According to the Energy Savings Trust, it could also save residents $280 a year on energy bills.
The U.K. is also the first country in the world to create a bank devoted to “greening the economy." The Green Investment Bank (GIB) runs independent of the government and addresses market failures by unlocking private investment. The recent Green Deal, announced in November, is set to kick-start a $22 billion investment in insulation and construction industries. Private sector investment will grant owners of vulnerable and hard-to-insulate homes cash to renovate their homes and make them warmer and more efficient. The plan also aims to create more than 65,000 jobs by 2015.
London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has championed this new movement, devising and backing numerous environmentally friendly initiatives in the capital, from supporting electric cars to the eponymous “Boris bikes.” The Barclays bicycle hire scheme has been well received, with over 8 million journeys completed since its inception in the summer of 2010. The bike hire scheme has won a dozen awards since July this year, including the Business to Community prize at the European Sponsorship Awards. While it is difficult to measure whether the bikes have changed the attitudes of Londoners to traveling without their cars, its popularity has ensured future expansion. The scheme is not without its kinks, however: An unavailable dock at riders’ destinations is a common grievance and London currently is not the most cycle-friendly city. The introduction of cycle superhighways has sought to improve conditions for cyclists, but there is still more that can be done to achieve something approaching the ease of cycling in the Netherlands.
The capital has also seen significant change in those traveling by four wheels. Those still unwilling to turn to public transport or pedal power are increasingly seeking to invest in smaller, more efficient and alternative fuel cars in an effort to save on both costs and emissions. The mayor’s plans to make London the electric-car capital of Europe are being realized through Source London, a program to create more charge points than petrol stations in the capital and make subsidies available on certain vehicles. The scheme is poised to fuel the rapid expansion of the electric-vehicle market. There are already more drivers opting for electric in London than anywhere else in the U.K., and further innovations, such as wireless electric-car charging, are soon to be introduced to the capital.
For all the environmentally friendly developments there can be somewhat of a conflict of interests when it comes to green issues versus economics. While there are a number of voices calling out for lower emissions and greener fuels, there are also constant concerns over the economic and competitive viability of these plans, especially during the current economic turbulence. But the development of these new technologies is a substantial investment for the U.K. government. Unfortunately, at a time of global competition and penny pinching, capital interests can win out over climate concerns. There are fears that the precarious economic climate might preclude sustainable priorities, therefore a balance must be struck between environmental and financial concerns. But environmental innovation is a long-term strategy that should be addressed sooner rather than later in order to prepare the U.K. for the future.