As part of our panel for the London Climate Action Week, we discussed together with the London Boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Islington and Hounslow, the various challenges that they are encountering on the road to net-zero. These are challenges encountered in London, but they are also most certainly challenges encountered universally by cities, municipalities and their climate strategists worldwide as they embark on building and implementing their plans to net-zero.
This proved to be a conversation well worth having, for the more we understand what is collectively preventing us from moving forward, the faster we can dismantle or find a way around these barriers.
Watch the full panel discussion:
Here are some of the highlights from our conversation, regarding both the challenges, but also the ways in which we can better face them going forward.
Data remains incomplete, limited and of variable quality
Climate strategists are faced with the complicated task of building evidence based plans with incomplete, limited and variable quality data.
National based estimates and such data lack granularity, which is an immediate challenge when creating a climate action plan. Illustrating this top-down approach, one panelist asked: “When it comes to national based estimates regarding road emissions, how do you know how much of that is down to your residents vs. the people passing through?”
And if this lack of precision is a problem from the onset of the creation of a plan, Ajit Bansal from Hounslow added that it continues to be an obstacle later down the line, when it comes to making the case for investment, and getting support for projects.
Adding to the problem of scope and precision, and to the fact that these data discrepancies create problems when it comes to connecting the dots between emissions, actions and funding, is the fact that most data is subject to a two-year data lag. This means that data often comes too late and has limited use to know whether boroughs are on track to net-zero and whether the actions they undertake have the desired outcomes.
In spite of all the above flaws in the data, James Wilson, from Islington Council pointed out that by its nature of being an absolute target, working towards net-zero may actually be easier than working towards a 40% target for instance.
Switching lens on data
The conversation showed that despite these drawbacks, there are also many ways in which we can improve the way we work with data.
It is not by searching for the perfect data that we will do so, but by working with what we have and already know more innovatively. Jim Cunningham, from Hammersmith & Fulham Council, made that clear by stating:
“Rather than relying on national CO2 data, we need to think about what data sources are available to us, on a more micro level, about the changes that we are looking for. What becomes key is working action by action, and thinking for each of these projects, what are the main indicators that we will need to track those real world transitions?
One thing that is important is to have an evidence base that links real world shifts with emissions reduction. Joining the pilot with ClimateView has been important from that point of view, as it has helped us think about the size of the pie. You have 700kTons of CO2e emissions from your transport sector? Well, what does that actually look like in terms of passenger petrol vehicles? and within that, what does it mean in terms of what you target? How many of these journeys today by petrol vehicles do we want to shift to cycling, how many do we think we can shift to cycling? Moving to these real world transitions as our indicators will be critical.”
Adopting a broader perspective when it comes to data will also be necessary. Opening up to qualitative data, and learning from behavioural science will be key to making better choices when it comes to choosing what action to privilege for emissions reduction and to what degree.
Multi-level collaboration as a major opportunity
London boroughs are lucky to have a very supportive network, with London Councils being a cross-party organization, working on behalf of London’s 32 boroughs and facilitating discussion and exchanges. But general consensus showed that there is still a lot to be done to collaborate and share knowledge more systematically, and in a less time consuming manner.
Inter-borough collaboration and collaboration beyond the borough level was seen as a massive opportunity: “With hundreds of local authorities all responding to the same issue, the climate emergency, we have a great testbed to learn from each other, to start seeing dozens, even hundreds of different kinds of projects that have been implemented”. That said, local specificities and variability was recognized as an issue. That’s why “introducing a common framework, building evidence that is comparable and designing common approaches to data will be of utmost value”.
Intra-borough collaboration also stood out as having a high potential for accelerating the transition. And this collaboration can only really happen “if the data is intelligible, understandable and transparent to stakeholders, so that they can grasp the nettle and take action as well. This will help push the agenda forward for these 90+ % of emissions which are not directly within boroughs’ direct control.”