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London leads climate change fight

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Climate change's impact is felt most heavily in natural wildernesses such as the Arctic and the Amazon rainforest. But it is in cities that most of the damage is done. Cities consume around 75 percent of the world's energy and produce 80 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions.

Now efforts to control global warming are set to transform our urban landscapes -- notably in London which last month unveiled ambitious plans to turn itself into the world's greenest city by cutting carbon emissions by 33 percent by 2025 -- the equivalent of a four percent reduction every year.

It is not the first time that the British capital has taken the lead on environmental issues. In 2005 it hosted the first World Cities Leadership Climate Change Summit, a meeting which paved the way for the creation of the C40 -- a group of large cities committed to tackling climate change that includes members as diverse as New York, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Johannesburg and Jakarta.

"Londoners don't have to reduce their quality of life to tackle climate change, but we do need to change the way we live," said London Mayor Ken Livingstone, announcing the London Climate Change Action Plan.

"The present model of high energy production and high energy waste is utterly inefficient. London, together with the rest of the world, must make a decisive shift to an economy in which energy is conserved, not wasted."

London also has good reason to be concerned by global warming. Located at the thin end of the Thames tidal estuary, it is considered to be one of the cities most under threat from rising sea levels with around 150 square kilometers located below high tide level -- home to more than one million Londoners.

Since 1984 London has been safely protected by the Thames Flood Barrier, built to prevent a repeat of storm surge that caused widespread destruction and killed 307 people along the east coast of England in 1953.

In recent years however, the barrier has been raised with increasing frequency, posing the risk that it could be overwhelmed by rising tides before new defenses are completed in time for the end of the barrier's operational life in 2030.

Many of the measures introduced as part of London's action plan target homes and offices by encouraging energy conservation through simple measures such as turning off lights or subsidized roof insulation. In the longer term, emissions will be cut by switching the London Underground to renewable energy.

Yet it has been London's landmark traffic congestion scheme which has garnered most headlines and which is now being watched closely by other cities around the world.

Livingstone, who introduced the scheme following his election in 2000, is keen to tweak his invention further by introducing a punitive £25-a-day charge for gas-guzzling 4x4s while allowing zero emissions cars in for free as he sets about creating a Low Emission Zone in central London.

He has also opened up the city to cyclists, marking out a 450km network of bike lanes that have helped increase the numbers of journeys made by bike five-fold -- a commitment that will be recognized in 2007 when the peloton of the Tour de France rolls through London for the first time.

Meanwhile, London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympics -- despite a rumbling row over costs that shows no sign of abating before the torch is lit and complaints that the project has ridden roughshod over the wishes of local residents and businesses -- will ultimately mean the creation of Europe's largest new urban park in 150 years.

Some, however, accuse Livingstone of selective radicalism, pointing to his eagerness to see the city's skyline crowned by a series of energy-hungry skyscrapers and the expanding airports at London's perimeter as evidence that his green credentials may not be all they seem.

Sian Berry, the co-leader of the Green Party who last month announced she would stand against Livingstone in next year's mayoral election, said that despite being elected for his "man of the people image," Livingstone has increasingly become an agent of big business.

"His fondness for big, shiny projects is well known," Berry wrote in a blogexternal link for the New Statesman Web site. "I'm looking forward to working hard to highlight what we will do to make London a human-scale city again."

Still, Livingstone's commitment to reducing London's carbon footprint has seen him hailed by some environmentalists as an example of how municipal politicians, rather than national governments, can set the agenda on climate change.

"Ken Livingstone is showing how the largest city in Europe can combat climate change. No other leader is on the same page," said Greenpeace Director John Sauven."The Mayor is showing in London what is possible."

Still, not all of Livingstone's green initiatives have been warmly received. The mayor's suggestion in the summer heatwave of 2005 that Londoners saved water by flushing the toilet less frequently was considered an act of sacrifice too far for most people -- global warming or not.


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Rising sea levels caused by global warming could threaten London in the future.

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