Saturday, August 09, 2008


Boris: no more energy for sustainability?

I knew the mayor would ditch some of his predecessor's more radical environmental plans, but he's pushing London back years

The new mayor of London has cancelled the biggest purchase order for hydrogen vehicles in the country and possibly the world. This dreadful decision will make the capital much weaker when facing problems in the very difficult times ahead.

This decision matters because hydrogen is potentially one of the best ways of storing and transporting energy from remote sources of renewable power, eg from Iceland, or wave machines off the Scottish coast. It isn't the answer to all our problems, but with oil likely to remain at over $100 a barrel, this is a technology that is worth giving a boost.

For the conservatives among you who don't believe me, then take this quote from the mayor himself, pictured three weeks ago handing out prizes to the winners of the schools hydrogen challenge:

Hydrogen is an exciting fuel of the future which is developing all the time, so it makes sense to encourage our young people to find out more so they can become the hydrogen pioneers of the next generation and help find solutions to the challenges we face today.

When Boris was elected, I had expected him to ditch some of the projects in the radical budget agreement (14 pages of excellent projects) between the previous mayor and the Greens on the London Assembly, but I assumed that the support for new technologies was a winner. With all the new mayor's talk about human ingenuity providing the solutions to the big environmental problems, I had him down as a techno-fixer. It now appears that this support for innovation only extends to nuclear power, which was the future back in the 1950s and is now a discredited, dead end technology.

The purchase of the 10 hydrogen buses will go ahead, as we are part of a European consortium of cities that want to encourage hydrogen through joint purchasing and the economies of scale. Hydrogen buses are one of the many environmental projects that were in the pipeline and have enough momentum to slip past the new gatekeepers at City Hall. I've seen several commentators naively praising Boris for increasing the cycling budget, setting up 10 low carbon zones, promoting hybrid taxis and financing more electric plug in points. In fact, all of these things are continuations of existing projects from Ken Livingstone's term in office.

However, this situation is unlikely to last. If the mayor is to meet his target of cutting 15% of the City Hall budget, then many projects designed to improve and protect London's environment will inevitably be axed. He has already ditched the £25 charge for gas-guzzlers and cut £400,000 from the groundbreaking scheme, which gives people advice on alternatives to using their car. He has not only dropped the part-pedestrianisation of Parliament Square, but also ditched the visionary 100 public spaces scheme. Despite urging Boris to think ahead and show some leadership, the Greens didn't even manage to get him to commit to the current proposal that all buses will be hybrids from 2012 onwards. Given the many complaints from Londoners about pollution from buses, a scheme that reduces pollution and fuel consumption by over a third should be a no-brainer.

A few months ago, I would have said with confidence that London was leading the world in finding new solutions to the huge transport and environmental problems we face. London had achieved zero traffic growth, during a time when both the economy and population was growing rapidly. Many of the best innovations had yet to mature and prove themselves, but we had the people and funding in place to make it happen. As we approached a new era of high energy prices and dealing with the threat of global warming, London was working out new ways of delivering traffic reduction and a shift to a genuinely sustainable transport system.

London was the future, once.

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