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19/01/2021

The new London Plan: The city’s road to net zero

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Recycle and reuse / iStock-694076680

The new London Plan's draft guidance on reducing carbon emissions through the entire lifecycle of buildings provides a template not just for the capital, but for the whole of the UK, says Phil Kelly

Last October, updated London Plan guidance documents were made available ahead of the new Plan’s publication this year. Helping to improve the original Plan, which outlines London’s strategy for becoming a zero-carbon city, the new targets and requirements in the London Plan provide carbon reduction methods for buildings.

However, to aid future planning strategies throughout the UK, we must consider the impact of these proposed changes, discovering how they can be both utilised and improved upon. 

New developments

Included in the emerging London Plan is the addition of the “Be seen” stage of the “Be lean”, “Be clean”, and “Be green” energy hierarchy, requiring better predictive modelling at design-stage, alongside monitoring and reporting of the actual operational energy performance of buildings for at least five years post-construction.

Importantly, this supports the idea that to achieve net-zero carbon buildings, we must better understand the actual operational energy performance of buildings – bridging the ‘performance gap’ between their design and actual energy use. 

“By thinking in terms of whole lifecycle carbon, rather than operational carbon, a development’s full carbon impact can be captured, from construction to end of life”

Requiring better performance predictions and monitoring is an impressive step forward: previously, there has been no requirement for the wider construction industry to report buildings’ energy outputs. Rather than relying on industry bodies to update their publications every few years, which are naturally largely outdated due to lags in publication timelines, we will now be able to access a continuously updated database from which we can better develop sustainable strategies. 

Furthermore, when it comes to reducing a building’s carbon emissions, the London Plan had originally focused on the operational phase of the building. Other phases, including construction, refurbishment and end of life were rarely considered. The new London Plan has fortunately acknowledged this missed opportunity, requiring a building’s whole lifecycle carbon emissions to be calculated and reported, including demolition and disposal. 

This is hugely valuable. By thinking in terms of whole lifecycle carbon, rather than operational carbon, a development’s full carbon impact can be captured, from construction to end of life. With London now setting this standard, it can act as a framework for the rest of the UK, resulting in more benchmark data and best practice information being shared and improved upon. Whilst the standard currently requires only the calculation of lifecycle carbon, rather than setting quantitative limits, these can be compared to recent publications by RIBA and LETI (London Energy Transformation Initiative), paving the way for minimum performance standards to follow.

Another important change in the plan is the requirement to submit circular economy statements. Presently, the built environment sector in London consumes 400 million tonnes of material each year, and accounts for 48 per cent of waste, making it critical to extend the life of buildings, reusing materials at the end of the building’s life to reduce waste and demand for virgin materials. By demonstrating how a development will incorporate circular economy measures into all aspects of the design, construction and operation process, this new requirement encourages the much-needed circular economy approach within the industry. 

“Presently, the built environment sector in London consumes 400 million tonnes of material each year, and accounts for 48 per cent of waste, making it critical to extend the life of buildings”

Emphasising whole lifecycle thinking and management, rather than just the operational phase, these new developments align with Ramboll’s own sustainable buildings market study in 2019 (pdf), and the early findings of the 2021 study, due for release shortly. This explored drivers and trends related to sustainable development in the construction sector, finding ways to design, construct and operate buildings that improve their environmental sustainability and the internal environment for users. 

Missed opportunities

These developments are a first step on the road towards achieving reduced carbon emissions, and it is hoped other planning institutions throughout the UK will follow suit. However, with the foundations laid, we must consider ways to enhance these plans, and any missed opportunities that invite new ways of thinking.

For example, while these documents highlight the importance of embodied carbon, there are no targets towards whole lifecycle carbon rather than just operational. Without any financial incentives and rewards, this limits their impact. 

Additionally, with the shift towards electricity over the next decade, the plan would also benefit from acknowledging the need for energy (thermal and electrical) storage technology. Capacity is already waning on the electrical grid, with coal power stations increasingly closing, which could lead to an increase in blackouts. 

By introducing new targets and requirements, these developments address the most important aim of the plan: helping London meet net-zero targets. Laying the groundwork for the rest of the UK to build upon, these developments should help improve the quality of the built environment, helping not just the present population, but future generations. 

Phil Kelly is head of department – sustainable solutions with Ramboll UK

Image credits | iStock, Ramboll

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