The Mayor of Greenwash? How Serious is Boris Johnson About Greening London?

Boris Johnson Mayor of Greenwash


was elected Mayor of in 2008 and thus far his achievements appear to have been fairly successful. However, a deeper scrutiny of his past record reveals a more than hint of scepticism against both clean energy and of and this propensity towards a wider ‘anti-green’ inclination is somewhat concerning. Is this an accurate impression or is there more to Mr Johnson than that?

Johnson was known as a potential climate change sceptic back in 2008 when he vowed to make London “greener, cheaper and cleaner at the same time”, a call aimed at capturing the green vote in the city. His scornful attitude towards action on global warming, up until his supposed green conversion, is on record, including his description of climate change in the past as a “religion” – a term regularly used by climate change deniers.

All of a sudden, he changed his mind, blurting out “if the climate can change, I don’t see why my mind can’t.” However, he didn’t help himself when in 2012 he promoted a known climate change denier – Conservative MP Dr Matt Ridley – by appointing him as a keynote speaker at his second ‘Mayor of London Debate’. In 2013, Johnson committed another faux pas by writing in his column for The Telegraph that Britain may be heading for a ‘mini ice age’, much to the irritation of London’s scientific community. He compounded this in the same year by claiming that “wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding”.

The Mayor’s early attempts to green the city included a new London energy efficiency plan, modelled on a similar scheme in Kirklees, Yorkshire. The idea was to provide free up-front access to efficiency measures for all London residents which would potentially drive energy bills downward by around £300 per year. Another idea was to establish a series of 10 low carbon areas within Greater London while a third policy ambition was to encourage better use of waste to energy technology in the city.

Johnson also made promising noises about green motoring and cycling. His ‘Boris Bikes’ cycle hire scheme has been generally successful, despite being the idea of his predecessor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone. By 2010, the scheme was operating 5,000 bicycles based at 315 docking stations within the City area and adjacent London boroughs. It won 15 awards for its design and its impact on traffic in London and extended into East London in 2012, expanding again in 2013 into West and South West London. By December 2013, the number of bikes for hire under the scheme had reached a total of 11,500 bikes. The introduction of a new hybrid bus drew a more mixed reaction, particularly with regard to cost, although the London Transport Commissioner, Sir Peter Hendry, loves it.

In March, the Mayor announced a new Ultra-Low Emissions Zone to be developed by 2020. It will require vehicles travelling through the present Congestion Charge Zone to meet new emissions standards or pay a charge. London taxi drivers will also benefit from a £25 million fund provided by central government which will be used to pay for grants for greener vehicles.

Johnson’s next target with regard to transport is electric vehicles for London’s fire brigade. He also intends to create a new fleet of electric buses. These projects are in turn part of a major new plan to win European capital of Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV) status for the city.

Other green transport developments for the future include 600 new hybrid Routemaster buses and a fleet of 8 hydrogen and electric buses serving the route between Covent Garden and Tower Gateway. Electric vehicles should also benefit from over 1,400 charge points that have already been installed.

The RE:NEW and RE:FIT programmes are designed to encourage public bodies to install energy efficiency measures in order to drive cost reductions, reduce carbon footprints and improve energy performance. Interviewed by Solar Power Portal in June this year, Mr Johnson said that the RE:NEW programme will benefit from a new framework of suppliers with a specific solar energy contract. These suppliers – 11 have been contracted in total – will provide retrofitting services to London boroughs, housing associations and other public sector landlords. In addition to solar panels, the work will consist of LED lighting, boiler upgrades, double glazing and insulation. Johnson also announced he would be expanding the RE:FIT programme to include installation of solar on school rooftops.

In May, the Mayor announced his support for a plan to create a cleantech hub in West London (a similar project has already been established in the East End in Shoreditch). The aim would be to attract start-ups and larger environmental businesses into Park Royal and Old Oak Common, following development of Crossrail and HS2. It would connect the West London business community with Imperial West’s White City campus and become part of a business centre in West London rivalling Canary Wharf.

Mr Johnson’s track record so far has been criticised, particularly with regard to tackling London’s pollution problem and a noticeable lack of support for solar, despite ample rooftop space. Johnson’s argument is that rooftop solar is never going to be effective in London compared to the rest of the country because there are too many flats and insufficient suitable roof space. He also argues that huge parts of the city are conservation areas where solar can’t be installed.

At present, London’s record on rooftop solar is appalling. It has the lowest amount of installed solar of any area in the UK. Only 7 percent of the 3,080 schools in the city have installed it, according to figures released at the beginning of the year by the Green Party. There are differences of opinion as to why this is the case. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) has argued that London has a transient population that doesn’t really reside in one place for long enough for the payback from solar to be worthwhile. London’s wealthier citizens may also be too rich to care, the REA believes.

Some energy companies believe that a more accurate answer is quite simply that many of the roof spaces are too small, which means you can’t actually get many panels up there. Building height means that scaffolding costs are higher and parking space for contractor’s vehicles is restricted. However, the Solar Trade Association (STA) disagrees.

“There are always reasons why you can’t do things, but London is ideal for solar” said the STA’s Leonie Greene, speaking to The Guardian. “You have a well-educated, politically aware population motivated by this sort of stuff [green issues], and a mayor who could make political leadership on it. If Yorkshire and Humber can do it, I have no doubt London can if it put its weight behind it.”

The feeling that Johnson is not sufficiently concerned about solar may have been exacerbated by his pro-fracking stance. At one point he even suggested that areas of London could be subjected to exploratory drilling searching for shale gas deposits and completely rejected a call by the London Assembly for City Hall’s pension fund to divest from fossil fuels.

The thing about Johnson is that he’s widely seen as a bit of a comic character, even attracting the label ‘buffoon’ on some occasions. His green programme does indeed appear to have been successful in certain areas, notably green transport and energy efficiency. However, his early attempts at shedding a reputation for climate change scepticism haven’t, yet, been successful, and they are not likely to be eased by any future remarks about fracking or continued lethargy on renewable energy, particularly rooftop solar.

Never mind the difficulties of putting panels on rooftops, if there is a serious ambition to increase the amount of clean energy in London then there must also be ways round these challenges. Boris Johnson won’t be standing for office when the Mayoral elections come round again in 2016 (he wants to concentrate on his work as an MP for Ruislip), but he has shown he can steer things in the right direction. He should really have put more oomph into it in order to be really convincing, but that will very quickly be a matter for whoever follows him.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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