It is fortunate Sadiq Khan is not a large man, because his team chose possibly the smallest cafe in Glasgow for his New Statesman interview. Khan is in town for Cop26 not merely as Mayor of London, but also in his new role as chair of C40 Cities, a powerful network of 100 global cities that are working together on climate change. For Khan, the local level is the only way real climate action can be delivered. And he wants to use his new position to help the rest of the world emulate London’s green successes.
“I am the first green mayor of London,” said Khan, squashed behind his cup of coffee between upturned tables and chairs, and antique-looking lamps. Khan took it all in his stride and joked with customers squeezing past as they left.
He is proud of his green record and promptly listed all the changes made and their impacts since he was elected Mayor in 2016. Khan is passionate in his belief that cities are the upholders of democracy in today’s world. “Nations states are too slow,” he said. “In the 21st century, cities and mayors are where the action is.”
Air pollution and the desire to reduce exposure to the “invisible killers we breathe every day” is big on Khan’s agenda. In 2019, he introduced an ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ), whereby cars, vans and motorcycles must pay £12.50 a day for the pleasure of entering the capital, and lorries, buses and coaches £100. This zone was extended “18-fold last week, covering four million people and an area twice the size of Paris”, said Khan.
The initiative is aimed at tackling the “twin challenges of air pollution and the climate crisis”, he explained. Before lockdown, when people arrived into the city there was traffic gridlock, but now exposure to “toxic air in the city centre has reduced by 50 per cent and carbon emissions by 6 per cent”.
In addition to the flagship ULEZ programme, the UK capital now has the most electric buses of any Western city; a third of taxis are electric; London also hosts a third of the country’s electric car charging points; and “green academies” are being set up to train Londoners for the jobs of the future.
These measures are not without their critics. The Telegraph recently ran a story entitled “How eco war became the new class war”, in which it claimed British workers were asking environmentalists to “check their privilege”, and pointed to the perceived business impact of some green policies. For Khan, such framing is nonsense given it is the people with the least money everywhere who are already suffering most from the impacts of climate change and air pollution, and who produce the fewest emissions.
“It is the people in the poorest parts of the city who are least likely to drive, yet who suffer the worst consequences caused by air pollution,” he said. He brings up Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose death in 2013 was linked by the coroner to air pollution. The nine-year-old died after an asthma attack, and lived near the busy and polluted South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London.
“Our policies are not just to address the air pollution crisis, but also issues of social justice,” said Khan. “Six out of ten people who live in the expanded ULEZ don’t even own a car.” He also cited research carried out by “the previous mayor” (now Prime Minister Boris Johnson) but published under his watch, showing there are “458 schools where the air is unlawful in deprived communities”.
Khan extends the need for climate and social justice, and for “those with the broadest shoulders to carry the greatest burden” to developing countries. “We are responsible in the Global North for carbon emissions being at the level they are,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution began in Glasgow and across our country. Wouldn’t it be great if we could provide the glimmer of hope and the solutions?” One of his first promises as chair of C40 Cities is for two-thirds of its budget in the next two years to go to climate action in the Global South.
“We can’t have a transition that is not just,” said Khan. Back in London, this means “the state needs to step in and we need to leverage the private sector” to implement win-win solutions like insulating people’s homes – reducing greenhouse gases, lowering energy bills and creating jobs.
Ultimately, Khan believes education is the key to change, and he broadened the conversation to a wider overview of the challenges high up on the London agenda – and how he has been tackling them.
Before the 2019 government decision to devolve the adult education budget of £350m to London, for example, Khan said people were getting certificates that didn’t lead to jobs. But now the City Hall strategy on skills is helping to support London’s green agenda. “We are working with the further education sector to offer qualifications and match skills with jobs being created in the green sector,” he enthused, and noted that the “green economy” is worth £48bn a year in London and employs 350,000 people. “I want to double that in the next eight years, give Londoners higher-paid, future-proof jobs and attract employers.”
“We have to grab all young people early when it comes to the planet,” Khan continued. “We’ve got to start early.”