Candidate Number: STWD7

BENVGPLB – Urban Environmental Management

“In the city you have chosen (London) what role does planning play in delivering carbon dioxide targets?”


Planning for London’s carbon dioxide emissions targets Introduction:
The question asks for an assessment of the delivery of carbon emission targets. It does not ask for an evaluation of these targets or the science of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide therein. This essay therefore does not consider whether we need to mitigate the effects of climate change or adapt to them, and steers clear of discussing how alarmed we should be over global warming. These issues have been covered at great length elsewhere and there is no space to address them in any meaningful way here. Underpinning the essay is an assumption, based on existing scientific knowledge, that climate change is real and carbon dioxide emissions are partly responsible - and that more could and should be done to protect future generations. To assess how the effectiveness of planning as a delivery mechanism, this essay will break down its role in different sectors and at different scales. Planners are not always explicitly mentioned when targets are discussed, although responsibility does trickle through the system and often lands at their door. As the guardians about decisions over land use, planners have two rules to play: one as the enforcer of environmental standards, and another more strategic role looking to the future. Although it is politicians and not planners who dictate the terms of the debate, I will consider the notion that planners have an influence. The environment is just one of the many factors that planners are supposed to take into account. As Davoudi et al (2009:pg16) note: planning can play “a pivotal role not just as a technical means by which climate change policies can be delivered but also as a democratic arena through which negotiations over seemingly conflicting goals can take place.”

The targets
The first step in analysing planning as a tool for delivering carbon dioxide targets is to determine what those targets are and who sets them. London is subject to policy and legislation on several levels, the most stringent of which have been set locally. The UK’s target under the 1997 Kyoto protocol is for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 12.5 percent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Although global leaders failed to agree new targets when they met in Copenhagen in 2009, London is committed both nationally and locally to more stringent goals. The 2008 Climate Change Act sets a target for carbon emissions to be cut 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (with an interim target of a 34 percent reduction by 2020). In London, Mayor Boris Johnson aims to reduce London’s carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2025.

Planning’s role
Authorities can choose from several methods to reduce emissions. They can seek to influence behaviour through market based approaches such as taxes (which can, for example, make polluting less attractive), subsidies (to encourage the uptake or development of new technologies), or emissions trading. These activities mostly fall outside planners’ remit. Another tool is government regulations and standards, for which planners are needed to monitor compliance. Another option for reducing emissions is to seek to influence behaviour through education and social networks, although effectiveness will be limited if people feel standards of behaviour are being imposed on them. To be effective here, planners and authorities will need to engage with the public.

The scope and extent of planning powers are set by national and local governments. The previous government said the planning system “has an important role to play” in helping it deliver its environmental targets (CLG 2007:pg11). Specifically, it said planners can support the building of zero or lower-carbon homes; locate new development to reduce travel needs; encourage walking and cycling; improve public transport; speed up the shift to renewables; and help places adapt to climate change such as flooding and coastal erosion. The current government appears to be less keen in using what it has described as top-down system (CLG2010), and is seeking both to reform planning to make it more responsive to local demands and to use more market-based methods of encouraging change. Looking to the future, however, planners have a strategic role to play, informing government policy over how decisions over future and existing land use can reduce emissions. The effectiveness of the planning system depends on planners’ understanding of climate change and the priority they accord it – or are required to accord it - compared with the social and economic considerations. Revelations from the science of climate change have prompted planners to adapt their processes, methods, skills and even perceptions of what makes a good place (Davoudi et al 2009:pg15). Climate change is not an exact science, but modelling systems such as ESTEEM (Estimation of Transport Energy and Emissions Model) can help planners understand the most likely scenarios and identify options – and show decision makers the potential effect of their policies, encouraging a precautionary approach. Planners also need to communicate across administrative borders for a consistent environmental impact assessment. For contractors, different standards can be confusing and non-specific requirements such as ‘reducing energy use’ allows for wiggle room. There are some internationally recognised methods for sustainable building such as BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method) or the LEED green building rating system which could help.

National level
The current government has frequently voiced its frustration with planners, who risk being side-lined in favour of market mechanisms such as the Green Investment Bank, intended to encourage investment in low carbon infrastructure. Given that there is no money in planning and government coffers are empty, this may well be the most efficient way of achieving these specific aims. However, more broadly reforms to the planning system include a presumption in favour of “sustainable development.” The Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG 2011) says this means “that the default answer to development and growth is “yes” rather than “no”, except where this would clearly compromise the key sustainable development principles in national planning policy, including protecting the Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. The two cited principles do not appear to fit with the most commonly used definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations 1987). Without clear imperatives from government, sustainability risks becoming an indulgent extra. As Jason Martin, an associate an architecture firm Hawkins/Brown says of development: “Money will always be the main driver but in borderline cases sustainability arguments may tip the balance with responsible and/or image conscious clients” (Max Fordam 2010:pg04).

Local level

While national governments have an important role in setting the tone of debate, local authorities are the key players for making things happen. At their first Earth Summit in Rio, global leaders agreed a non-binding blueprint for environmental action called Agenda 21 in which two thirds of the agreements were addressed to local authorities for implementation (Layard 2001:pg54). In addition, London has powers to set its own standards in certain areas, including ensuring “the achievement of sustainable development” (Greater London Authority Act 1999). As the GLA notes on its website, cities are responsible for more than two-thirds of global carbon dioxide, and in recognition of their responsibilities to both the environment and their citizens (who suffer the consequences), some mayors are surging ahead of their governments. The mayor’s environment advisor Martin Powell said London needs to show it is reducing carbon emissions “simply to maintain its position in terms of competition as a world city” (NLA 2011:pg45). The GLA has initiated a series of emission reduction measures including the Street Trees program; retrofitting London’s houses to improve energy efficiency through the RE:NEW Home Energy Efficiency for Tomorrow scheme; the RE:CONNECT partnership with London boroughs to deliver ten low carbon neighbourhoods; and RE:FIT, London’s public sector building energy. Impetus can also come from the borough level, both in organising schemes such as recycling and car clubs, and also setting standards as Merton Council did with renewables. However, national and international agreements are required to make sure that some cities do not take advantage of others’ restraint.

Planning in London
Meeting London’s emission standards requires action in three key areas: transport; energy and waste; and housing.

Transport accounts for over a quarter of UK carbon dioxide emissions (27 percent in 2004 according to Defra 2006:pg61) and road transport is responsible for 86 percent of domestic transport emissions (CABE 2009:pg14). Planners can therefore help reduce emissions by improving public transport, designing settlement patterns to reduce car use, and encouraging walking and cycling. London is also famous for pioneering the congestion charge, which as the name suggests was designed to reduce clogged up streets. Interestingly, a 2007 report by Transport for London on the scheme does not make any attempt to quantify the reduction in carbon dioxide, suggesting this was not the main impetus. The analysis centres around traffic speed, congestion and money. Transport planning could be improved further by looking to cities like Copenhagen and Paris, which have encouraged people to reclaim parts of the city once dominated by cars by integrating their transport and public space policies.

Energy and waste
The EU Renewable Energy Directive includes a UK target of 15 percent of energy from renewables by 2020. This has superseded the Merton Rule, a planning policy pioneered by the Merton Council in 2003 that required 10 percent of building energy needs to be met by renewables. Considered highly innovative at the time, it was adopted by many other local authorities and is credited with influencing the national debate. Criticism of the scheme – such as lack of expertise and funds to implement – may make meeting EU requirements smoother.


The advisory body CABE (2009:pg10) recommends that towns and cities should adopt their own energy strategy involving utility companies to prioritise low carbon energy sources. They point to Copenhagen as an example: it has developed a network of district heating and power schemes using energy from waste, wind and other sources such as spare heat from industry. London produces 20 percent of the UK’s waste, meaning there is much potential to develop fuel sources from waste (NLA 2011:pg38). It is also running out of landfill. But under the current government’s localism agenda, communities have more power to resist new waste plants or landfill sites in their areas. Still, planners could oversee attempts to reduce waste, such as recycling schemes, or reducing packaging by working with supermarkets and other large retailers. The GLA is also looking outside planning for solutions requiring money, such as the London Green Fund, a £100 million European Investment Bank backed scheme to invest in schemes to cut London’s carbon emission, or a green technology research centre. On the level of individual houses, councils can also promote solar water heating, photovoltaics and ground source heat pumps using a mixture of incentives and planning policy objectives.

Buildings account for at around 45 percent of the carbon emissions in the UK (CABE 2009:pg12). Building regulations can set energy efficiency standards in new build, but that only accounts for half a percent of London’s building stock per year (NLA 2011:pg45). Retrofitting the existing housing stock is therefore clearly an opportunity. The government has introduced the Green Deal, which aims to let consumers make energy efficiency improvements to their homes and businesses at no upfront cost, with contractors recouping payment through a charge in instalments on the reduced energy bill. To speed up the process, planning may need to be streamlined and made more consistent across authorities to allow contractors to make the changes more easily.

The climate change debate asks us to look into the future. To be effective, planners need to take their binoculars out. While they have a role in monitoring development, to make a real difference, planners need to think about the long-term needs of an area. However, while strategic planning can make sure policies are implemented in the most appropriate way, the system is a tool for politicians, who ultimately determine the boundaries of what can be done. Planning is a useful mechanism for bridging the gap between action at individual and national level. Creating sustainable communities requires joined up thinking between different government departments, and between local and national. This is something spatial planning, which in its broadest sense is “critical thinking about space and place” (RTPI 2003), has been striving to do for some time. Linking policy on transport, green infrastructure and public spaces can have benefits for health and the economy as well as reducing emissions. A network of green spaces can help reduce the urban heat island effect, for example, reducing demands on air conditioning in summer. As the arbiters between economic, social and environmental goals, planners have an opportunity to set the benchmark. They should strive to harness their methods and skills to plan for a reduced emission future, even if politicians keep moving the goal posts. Word Count: 2147

References consulted
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