London needs a mayor who will fight for solar

The capital's new mayor will be elected mere days after the signing of the Paris climate agreement. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In just a few days’ time, leaders from over 130 countries will gather in New York City to officially sign the Paris climate agreement. It’s a real achievement that holds great promise. Yet its best chance of success may rest not on the leaders of nations, but of cities. Cities - where a majority of the world lives, and which are responsible for the largest share of carbon emissions - have emerged as key drivers of change in areas such as energy generation and efficiency, housing, transport and technology.

London - Europe’s largest city - can lead the world in embracing positive solutions to the climate crisis. That will be in the hands of the new mayor, to be elected just a few days after the signing of the Paris climate agreement.

Despite the UK moving quickly to put the Paris Agreement into law, recent policy decisions have delivered setbacks for the UK renewables industry. But where Westminster is failing to lead, cities and communities across the country can step in, starting with our largest city quickening the pace on shifting to renewable energy like wind, solar, biomass and tidal.

Right now, London lags. In February Energy for London, an independent think tank, reported that London had less installed rooftop solar (as a share of households) than any other UK region or major city. In other words, of the 11 core cities studied, London came dead last. Glasgow, not exactly the epitome of sunshine, came ahead.

London is a city covering over 1,600 square km, with over 3.25 million households and perhaps one million roofs. Only 0.5 per cent of households have rooftop solar. Solar generates around 0.13 per cent of the city’s electricity. London has the capacity to generate 20 per cent or more of its electricity through solar but it’s not doing this. While there are many plausible explanations why this is the case the real issue is a simple lack of ambition. We’ve lost our will to lead.

Contrast the up-and-coming city of Berlin. At a latitude similar to Birmingham, it covers an area of less than 1,000 square km, has fewer than 2 million households, and considerably less roof space. But by the end of last year Berlin had installed 83MW of solar. London had only installed 54MW.

London can do better. We can and we must.

As the mayoral election enters its final days, voters will be making up their minds on their choice of mayor and the different policy platforms. Opinion research from Greenpeace UK recently showed that 79 per cent of undecided voters want a mayor who will fight for solar power.  And even greater numbers, 84 per cent of Londoners, support a mayoral initiative to make all London buses run off electricity produced by solar panels on TfL or GLA land - an idea that many voters find increasingly attractive as the capital grapples with levels of air pollution now exceeding legal limits.

A mayoral candidate who provides this kind of leadership - introducing a London FIT, putting solar panels on all GLA and TfL estate - can revive and revolutionise solar in London.

As luck would have it, we’re in the midst of a green arms race among the mayoral candidates, with each attempting to flash their environmental credentials higher and brighter than their opponent. Simply by the nature of her party, Sian Berry is a step ahead but the others are gaining ground.

At a Greener London hustings last month, Zac Goldsmith and Caroline Pidgeon pledged to increase solar capacity tenfold by 2020, rolling out panels across an equivalent of close to 200,000 London rooftops over the next five years; Sadiq Khan made the same commitment with a deadline of 2023. These pledges meet the targets set by Greenpeace UK and IPPR: for the new Mayor to increase solar PV capacity to at least 750MW by 2025.

But we all know that campaign promises can and often are broken. The candidates’ manifestos appear weaker than their commitments: Zac has pushed his timeline back to 2025 and Sadiq left the commitment out of his manifesto altogether.

If we want London to be a global leader, there’s no room for backtracking. We need to elect a mayor who is willing to lead. And we need to hold him or her to account.

Gabriel Davalos is a climate change campaigner at Purpose

Free trial CSS