This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which looks at efforts around the world to make a difference.
Sadiq Khan has made the battle against urban air pollution and climate change the signature issue of his six years as mayor of London. The city’s first Muslim mayor, the 51-year-old former Labour M.P. was elected last year as chairman of the C40 Cities group of the world’s leading cities, which also places climate change at the top of its agenda.
Loudly frustrated by the slow progress at United Nations-sponsored climate summits, Mr. Khan calls city mayors the “doers” on climate change, in contrast to the “delayers” in national governments, and says that cities must be given a new leadership role at future summits.
Ahead of his appearance on the first panel at The New York Times Climate Forward conference in London, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, Mr. Khan defends his imposition of the world’s largest scheme for clamping down on vehicle emissions in cities and vows to make even more striking reforms to road use if he is re-elected in 2024 for a third term. The interview has been edited and condensed.
As the chairman of the C40 group of 97 major cities, you often urge cities to share their best practices on battling climate change. What are some examples of effective efforts?
The great mayor in Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, is doing some really good work in retrofitting buildings to improve their energy efficiency.
Freetown in Sierra Leone is doing really good work in planting trees, which helps to reduce landslides and improve the air quality. New York and Tokyo have got some impressive standards for buildings, reducing their energy emissions, and Oslo has introduced carbon budgets for the city.
London has got the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone [the ULEZ, which imposes a charge on vehicles that do not meet air quality standards]. Just in the space of two years it has halved toxic air in the central city.
Is there any specific program you would like London to adopt from what you have seen work elsewhere?
I’m really impressed with what the governing mayor of Oslo, Raymond Johansen, is doing in relation to carbon budgets. We’re looking at starting to build in a carbon budget when we set our next budget in London, so we can see the carbon emission consequences of every pound we spend.
There are examples all across the globe leading to tangible differences being made right now, because cities are doers in fighting climate change while national governments are often delayers.
Why do you say that?
The evidence is clear. Most countries who’ve got targets to get to net-zero carbon have set targets that are 20-30 years away, when the leaders will be gone. Mayors set targets that are within reach and they’re already doing stuff.
Of all the 200-plus countries who signed the Paris Agreement, how many have an adaptation plan that actually meets the agreement? Just one, Gambia. Contrast that with the major cities. Of the 97 members of C40, 64 of us have an adaptation plan to get to net-zero carbon in accordance with Paris. That is the difference between doers and delayers.
What is the low-hanging fruit in cutting urban emissions for those big cities?
There are three big areas where there’s carbon emissions: where people work, where people live and how they travel. So if we can reduce emissions in those areas by, for example, walking more, cycling more, using public transport more and using vehicles less, that quickly reduces carbon emissions and other forms of pollution.
Insulating our buildings with double glazing and so forth to be more energy efficient, and using electric or hydrogen vehicles, are other examples of low-hanging fruit. Those are things we can do quite easily, and there are cities already making progress.
What are the tougher, longer-term challenges?
The tougher one — but still not insurmountable — is the transition from hydrocarbons to renewables. You have got to invest. It’s often seen as a loss leader but you get the money back in terms of lower fuel bills and new jobs.
You’re consulting now on expanding London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone to cover much more of the city but do you think that eventually you are going to have to go further?
Yes, I do think the future is smart road user charging [adjusting charges for road use using smart technology]. London’s congestion charge and ULEZ were the first of their kind when they were launched in 2003 and 2017, but they are quite clunky. They have led to great improvements in air quality, but they’re just based on a vehicle entering a geographical area.
It would be better to have a bespoke system that’s relevant to you and your needs. So you should pay less if you’re in an area that has bad public transport and fewer alternatives to driving, or if you’re driving when there’s very little congestion or your car is not the most polluting car. And if you’re somebody on a low income, that would also be taken onboard in relation to what you pay. So that’s what we’re working toward for the future.
How far-off is that?
I’d hope to do it in my next term if I’m re-elected in 2024. So in this term we’re consulting on expanding ULEZ to cover the entire Greater London and in the next term, from 2024 to 2028, I hope we can get smart road user charging.
We’ve got to be ambitious because we want to get to zero carbon by 2030.
Britain has a national target of being net-zero carbon by 2050 but in 2018 you set a target for London of 2030. Are you confident that you’re going to meet the 2030 deadline?
You’ve got to be ambitious, so I think we can do it but, to be frank, we’re not going to do it unless we get more support from the national government and the devolution of both powers and resources.
Of the three areas I mentioned, transport, homes and places of work, I’ve only got the powers to deal with most of the transport stuff, I’ve got no real powers over buildings, either homes or where people work.
I’ve got no powers over the River Thames, for instance, so boats are going up and down it using diesel right in the middle of the city and I’ve got no powers to persuade them to be more environmentally friendly.
If the government was to devolve me resources for a scrappage scheme to encourage families who own diesel or petrol vehicles to get away from them, or resources to give small businesses and charities a subsidy to move away from polluting vehicles, that would make a big difference.
The private sector is really, really excited to get to net-zero carbon, and companies from around the globe are coming to London because of our green prospectus, but we need support from the government in relation to infrastructure, making our buses electric and having enough electric vehicle charging points. And unless the government invests in retrofitting our buildings, we’re not going to get there.
You believe that national governments failed the challenge at last year’s Glasgow COP climate talks. What do cities need to see happen at this year’s talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt?
There was a real contrast in Glasgow between the energy and innovation of the private sector and cities and mayors compared to the filibustering, dithering and delaying inside the conference center from most of the national governments, particularly in the Global North. What we need at future meetings is for the United Nations and national governments to let go of the powers they hold and bring in others who can give them the support they need.
I think we can get to zero carbon by 2030 and easily stay below 1.5 degrees warming if city mayors and citizens are empowered to play a role at future COPs, so they are not just talking shops.
One of biggest things we’ve got to get across is that the problem we have is actually an opportunity.
The famous phrase is that you should never waste a crisis.
And the pandemic pales in comparison to climate change as a crisis. If the world can come together to deal with Covid, why can’t we come together to solve the much bigger crisis, climate change?