“Sheer determination and technological optimism” won’t be enough for a low carbon industrial revolution

Offices in the City of London. Image: Getty.

Launching the countdown to the COP26 climate talks last week, the prime minister was right to say climate action presents a huge industrial opportunity, one that can drive “our national agenda of uniting and levelling up our country”. The UK’s success in renewable energy is a clear example of what real policy ambition can achieve.

So why are we not taking even the most basic steps in other areas? One obvious target is the shocking level of energy UK offices and commercial buildings still waste, where there has been little improvement since the early 2000s.

In the financial district of the City of London, Green Alliance estimates that, every year, offices are wasting the equivalent energy used to power over 65,000 homes. That’s a similar number to the entire housing stock of the London Borough of Kingston upon Thames. This waste is costing City businesses £35m a year and generating the same annual carbon emissions as 46,000 cars every year. 

This seems hard to explain, particularly when cheap and readily available digital technologies can help businesses track and modulate their energy use. AI optimisation systems have been shown to cut energy use by as much as 14 per cent in commercial buildings and pay for themselves in just a few months.

Yet companies often find it hard to identify the inefficiencies in their operations, and don’t have the strategic foresight to feel comfortable with longer payback periods. 

What’s needed to change this?      


Saving money across the country

With over 65 per cent of local authorities now having declared climate emergencies, there is a strong political mandate for innovative local solutions. 

The local industrial strategies mayors and others are publishing could provide targeted support for business energy efficiency measures. Cities like Bristol, which are already pioneering adoption of smart energy systems, should take the lead on this. Green Alliance estimates that Bristol’s offices could save nearly £2m on energy bills within a year by using energy optimising AI systems. A similar programme in cities with bigger business districts could save more, with estimates of £3.3m in Manchester and £2.6m in Leeds.

Some councils already have powers to raise funding for this through a supplement to larger companies’ business rates. The Greater London Authority used this approach to fund Crossrail and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is considering it to fund the retrofit of commercial buildings. This could help to channel funding into local clean growth, stimulating the market for energy efficiency and enabling local supply chains for smart energy and sustainable construction to expand.

But success will be limited if there isn’t support at national level too. In its 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, the government committed to improving business energy efficiency by at least 20 per cent by 2030 but it has yet to set any policy to deliver on that.

A key failing of the system at the national level is that building efficiency is estimated rather than measured, with actual carbon emission up to ten times higher than usually assumed.   

A successful scheme in Australia has proved it is possible to spark radical change. The National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) has cut the energy use of office buildings across Australia by nearly 40 per cent over 13 years, using a rating systems based on their actual performance in use and by promoting digital solutions to save energy. The better understanding this has led to has also improved the design of new buildings. Newly built prime offices in Melbourne use less than half the energy per square metre of similar new offices in London. Before the scheme, they were comparable. 

Rather than trusting in “sheer determination and technological optimism” to do the magic, as the PM was implying last week, the government should be doubling down on this agenda. Boosting business energy efficiency would help UK businesses save £6bn a year by 2030 – a welcome shot in the arm and a route to “levelling up our country” by raising resource productivity in parts of the UK where the economy is lagging behind. 

It would also be one of the most basic steps to cut our climate impact and, alongside action on transport, agriculture and housing, a vital measure to get the UK on track towards net zero. If the prime minister wants the rest of the world to come with us and ensure the UK is seen as a credible host of the COP26, we should really be getting our house in order, starting from the basics.

Caterina Brandmayr is senior policy analyst at Green Alliance.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.