by Angus Fraser
Time to read: 7 minutes

London’s environmental record is under scrutiny as never before. But beyond the headlines, politics and PR, is London really making measurable progress in cleaning up its act?

In December 2018, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan declared “We are in the midst of a climate emergency which poses a threat to our health, our planet and our children and grandchildren’s future”.

In 2014, Sir David King, formerly Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government and then the UK Special Representative for Climate Change said that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

There’s no denying that the environment has become the hottest of topics worldwide – no pun intended! Extinction Rebellion’s demonstrations are never far from the headlines. Teenage environmental activist, Greta Thunberg has gained international recognition and become a household name.

When I visited Asia last summer, it struck me that the environment seemed to have an even higher profile there than it has here in Europe. Urban pollution remains a huge challenge for many Asian cities. It saddened me to see huge levels of plastic waste, despite people desperately wanting to reduce their dependency on it.

Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism – Sir David King

London’s environmental record: How does it measure up?

But of course, it’s a big deal here in London too. Whilst we tend to point the finger at Asian cities, such as Beijing, in some respects London has worse pollution. Indeed, in recent years, Beijing has radically improved its air quality – to the extent that it’s now a model for other cities.

The issue has gained traction because high levels of pollution impact on public health. If you’re a business with office space in London, you can ill-afford to ignore it. Your contribution to the environment – positive and negative – is important per se. Furthermore it has an immediate  impact on the well-being of your staff.

On a typical commute through London you’ll see hundreds of adverts, many of which are now promising or delivering on a more environmentally friendly product or service. In the summer Coca Cola announced it was ditching Sprite’s iconic green plastic bottles in favour of clear ones, which can be more easily recycled.  TFL ads explaining their new eco-buses are now commonplace. The environment has become big business.

But behind the headlines, political declarations and advertising, is London really making measurable progress in improving its environment? Does London’s environmental record stack up? How does London compare to its competitors? Where is it doing well and where could it improve? Is it actually going backwards in some areas? I decided to do some digging to find out…

Two key environmental issues – specific, but not exclusive to London – are waste (both household and commercial) and air pollution. Both endanger the planet’s wellbeing. Waste is highly visible and therefore – you’d expect – easy to correct. Air pollution is largely invisible (except when it’s acute), but is more immediately dangerous to our personal health. It too has far reaching implications for the planet as a whole.

London's Environmental Record

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London’s air pollution challenge

A recent study from Kings College London estimated that 9,500 premature deaths per year in London are linked to poor air quality. Pollution can cause chronic asthma, heart attacks and has possible links to dementia. Excessive amounts of nitrogen dioxide in London’s atmosphere is key. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in small amounts is found naturally in the air, but road traffic and burning fossil fuels causes it to rise to much higher levels. At harmful levels, nitrogen dioxide causes breathing problems for both humans and animals, as well as fatigue, nausea and headaches.

Overall, London has made significant progress in reducing the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the city’s atmosphere. Quarterly average roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have fallen from 89 µg/m3 in January to March 2017 to 57 µg/m3 in July to September 2019. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set an annual mean target of 40 μg/m3 for nitrogen dioxide by 2025.

However, whilst London as a whole has made significant improvements, some central areas are still recording high levels of NO2. For instance,  Marble Arch sometimes  operates at 5 times the EU norm! Until these pockets of harmful pollution are dealt with, London’s environmental record will always be compromised.

The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)

London is a member of the C40 group – cities who have pledged to reduce emissions by 60% by 2025.

As part of that commitment, the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was introduced in April 2019. Owners of vehicles failing to meet emissions standards were henceforth charged to enter Central London. According to London City Hall, the scheme has already reduced emissions in Central London by a third in its first 6 months. Polluting vehicles entering central London are down by 13500 per day. In February 2017 39% of vehicles in the zone were compliant with ULEZ emissions standards. In March 2019 – one month prior to the scheme’s introduction, the figure was 61%. And by September 2019, 77% of vehicles were compliant. Overall traffic flow has reduced compared to the same period in the 2018. It’s early days, but on the face of it, this seems like a big win for London’s environmental record.

In the first 6 months since the introduction of ULEZ, polluting vehicles entering central London are down by 13500 per day.

London’s carbon footprint – business and public transport

London’s workplaces have managed to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing emissions from 17.5 kilotonnes in 2000, to 11.3 kilotonnes in 2016. However, London’s public transport sector has seemingly made little progress. Emissions cause by the rail and bus network have only been cut from 8.7 kilotonnes to 8.1 in 16 years. This is partly due to enlarged capacity on the network. Congestion charging has encouraged more people to leave their car at home and travel by public transport.

Household waste

Londoners have nearly halved their household waste since the turn of millenium. The latest figures from 2018 indicate that Londoners have an average of 560kg of household waste compared to 993kg in 2001. Based on the government’s estimations of 3.74 million households in London by 2021, London would have cut over 1.6 billion kg of waste from our homes.

London’s recycling efforts

On recycling specifically, London’s environmental record lags behind not only the rest of the UK, but also comparable cities throughout the developed world.  The UK as a whole recycles around 44% of its waste. This includes anything from our morning coffee cup to an old TV set. In London this number is only 33%. Whilst this is better than New York’s reading of 23% in 2017, it’s worse than Copenhagen at 45%. Copenhagen now has a renewed target of 75% by 2024.

London’s environmental record – a mixed report

In conclusion, it’s fair to say that London’s Environmental Record is mixed at best. Some notable wins, but some obvious weaknesses, with much work to do.

London is but one city, of course. These problems transcend city and national borders and affect the entire planet. As individual Londoners we can however make a contribution. Cycling or using the tube to get to work instead of taking an Uber will make a difference, if enough people make that choice. Understanding and complying with our local authority’s recycling policy will improve the way we mange waste. Landlords, business centres and office tenants can also make positive changes to improve our well-being. Government bears the weight of responsibility for environmental policy. Infrastructure projects such as Crossrail – when it’s eventually completed and opened off course – not only make city life easier and more prosperous, but also make it cleaner and healthier.  A cleaner city would benefit all Londoners, contribute to the health of our global environment and set an example to the rest of the world.

Data Sources

The following sources were used as the basis for this blog post and the creation of the infographic:

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