How can the capital prepare its workforce for a net zero London?


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How can the capital prepare its workforce for a net zero London?

Sadiq Khan has mooted an ambitious net zero goal if he is re-elected Mayor, but a London Assembly report argues more for more focus building the skills to get there

All cities and regions around the UK have different, yet crucial, roles to play in helping to deliver net zero emissions by 2050. But given it generates just under a quarter of the UK’s entire GDP, getting the net zero transition right for London in a way that boosts the economy while driving opportunities for all is particularly critical.

And with Mayor Sadiq Khan keen to bring forward the capital’s own net zero target to 2030 should he win a second term as Mayor – an election now delayed until next year due to coronavirus – pressure is growing on City Hall to help prepare businesses and workers for what would be a rapid and transformational decade of decarbonisation for one of the world’s most influentiall cities.

After all, the scale of what is needed to reach net zero emissions in London is significant. Annual emissions from the city stood at around 34 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015, or just under 10 per cent of all of the UK’s total emissions that year. So, if Khan is re-elected next year to deliver on his 2030 target, that figure would need to plummet to near zero in only a decade, which amounts to a huge individual and collective effort across every sector of the capital’s economy.

It is a challenge highlighted by the London Assembly’s Economy Committee in a new report due for release shortly, marking the first time it’s members have examined the potential impacts of climate change and the net zero transition on the city’s workforce. As chair of the Committee, Leonie Cooper explains time is now tight to build up the policy framework, skills, and infrastructure needed to transition a global city of more than eight million inhabitants to net zero emissions.

“I was very keen to bring this agenda into the Economy Committee, because I think that people were talking very blithely about net zero carbon and the skills that we need for the future green industrial revolution, and yet who has started to look at what we actually need to do?” Cooper tells BusinessGreen.

The London Assembly Member for Labour argues that, while Khan’s ambition for achieving net zero is to be applauded, the glimpses he has offered of that vision – such as in the London Plan, Environment Strategy, and the Transport Strategy – have so far largely focused on residents and infrastructure rather than green business and critical skills development.  

“This is about the Mayor going beyond those strategies and thinking about employees, workforce skills and companies,” Cooper says of her Committee’s report. “His strategies are looking at slightly different areas, and so we were trying to focus in on what business really needs to be getting on with and how we can support them.”

As the report states, such a deep and rapid transition cannot be achieved by merely setting a net zero target for 2030, but will also require “a deeper understanding of what it takes to build a low-carbon society, as well as a workforce with new skills”.

For his part, Khan had promised to deliver a ‘Green New Deal for London’ during his second term setting out his plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, foreshadowed by a 10-point plan in his manifesto ahead of the election. However, with England’s mayoral elections now on the backburner while the country deals with the fallout from the current pandemic crisis, it could be another year until that plan sees the light of day.

In the meantime, therefore, the recommendations in the Economy Committee’s report – which would unlikely have made it to City Hall much before Khan finalised his 2020 election manifesto – may now help give all the Mayoral candidates some food for thought as to how to help put London’s economy on a greener footing for when the worst of the pandemic begins to subside.

Firstly, in a policy ask that will sound familiar to those lobbying Westminster, the report highlights the huge opportunity for City Hall to use its buying power to benefit the net zero transition, whether that be through the cars and buses it purchases, the services it contracts, or the buildings and materials it uses.

At present, London lacks incentives for individuals and companies to pursue low carbon opportunities, and there is “insufficient pressure for action”, according to the report. City Hall has made a start by drawing up a Responsible Procurement Policy that includes a section on environmental sustainability. But the Committee argues the Mayor should go further by promoting the environmentally sustainable procurement policy Londonwide – with specific guidance and benchmarks – for businesses to additionally sign up to themselves.

“There are some companies that have already gone a long way down this route on an individual basis, but I think the problem is that it’s patchy,” Cooper explains. “How do we, at pace, transfer the learnings from one company to another, when they might be based in completely different parts of town? There is a lot of work to be done to get the good practice that is already there disseminated more thoroughly across all businesses in London. That can be done much more easily from City Hall than from an individual borough, because it covers the whole of London.”

But to deliver greener products and services, and to ensure employees are safeguarded when business and infrastructure transitions towards net zero, London – as with the rest of the UK – needs to develop the requisite green skills and qualifications that will increasingly be in demand. Specifically, the report points to expected growing demand in areas such as carbon accounting, supply chain management, and data management. Construction work, too, is particularly expected to evolve, with rising demand expected for modular construction practices, and the installation of carbon-saving measures such as insulation, heat pumps, and passive heating systems.

So, the Mayor should focus London’s Adult Education Budget – which funds education for people aged 19 and over – on providing retraining for employees not just to those affected by the net zero transition, but to further assist that transition and ensure a steady flow of skilled recruits, according to the report.

Moreover, with rapid and disruptive changes likely to occur in the next decade and beyond thanks to technological as well as climate change, London’s labour market needs to remain flexible and responsive, it argues. That means, for example, more onus on ‘lifelong learning’ within businesses, as well as ‘on trial’ periods to allow easier movement between jobs, backed by adequate income support for any negatively impacted workers. Far more focus is therefore needed at City Hall on enhancing green skills and education provision, argues Cooper.

“I think there will be a lot of retraining that can be done, and helping people move into new roles, but I don’t think enough thorough research has been done into that at the moment,” she explains. “That was one of the key reasons we wanted to kick off some debate in this area.”

As such, the report calls on the Mayor to produce a detailed action plan setting out City Hall’s commitment to the net zero transition – and helping businesses also make that transition – to a low carbon, circular economy. This, it suggests, could be further bolstered by commissioning research to set out the key net zero benefits and challenges in specific sectors.

City Hall is expected to respond to the Economy Committee’s recommendations in due course, and with the election delayed by another year it remains to be seen quite how long that might be. Is Cooper confident the recommendations will be heeded?

“I’m optimistic in the sense there are a lot of people who want to get on with it and make things happen, but I’m pessimistic in the sense that I still think there’s quite a lot of blockages in the way,” she says, pointing to wider political wrangles that have continued to dog the country in recent years. “If we’re really to transform London, we need central government as well as local and regional government all working on the same page, because otherwise it won’t happen.”

But for Cooper, delivering net zero is not just an uphill struggle, because like all cities London is of course constantly chopping, changing, and updating itself in different ways. The trick is to try and guide the city – and its workforce – in the right direction, she says.

“It’s about trying to visualise London as being a city that incorporates much more biodiversity within itself, as it remakes itself, because we remake London all the time,” Cooper explains. “What London looked like five years ago was very different to what London looks like now. What it looked like 65 years ago before the Clean Air Act, when you could barely see your hand in front of your face due to the air pollution, was very different. The city will continue to remake itself in that way.”

Like any major city, London certainly has a job on its hands to reach net zero in the next decade – even more so given the immediate crisis gripping the economy – but if City Hall delivers the leadership and support to help businesses and workers accelerate the net zero transition, the city could well be a driving force for the UK’s wider decarbonisation efforts over the next 30 years.

Read more: businessgreen.com

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