Sustainability & Environment

Sustainability steps up a gear amidst pandemic impacts


Concerns that sustainability would fall by the wayside as a luxury nice-to-have for governments and businesses weathering the pandemic have proved largely unfounded.

China has stepped up its commitments to cut carbon emissions, the US is eyeing up a path to a net zero 2050 via an energy infrastructure revolution, and London is taking decisive action to tackle illegal levels of air pollution.

Meanwhile, global fashion has recommitted to a sustainable future after a coronavirus-induced lull, and the UK found a silver lining in Storm Bella as wind power delivered the majority of the country’s electricity.

Key takeaways:

  • The UK’s decade-long ‘renewables revolution’ delivered more than 50% of the country’s electricity from wind for the first time on Boxing Day.

  • London will become the world’s largest clean air zone to tackle illegal pollution levels and move toward a sustainable transport ecosystem.

  • The US is positioned for a giant leap forward in sustainable energy infrastructure to hit net zero by 2050.

  • Global fashion and retail brands launched innovative new sustainability strategies after putting the issue on a pandemic back burner.

  • China signalled its new determination to join the global fight against the climate emergency by announcing higher emissions cuts by 2030.

Storm Bella powers UK wind power record

A battering from Storm Bella delivered some good news as more than half of the UK’s daily electricity came from wind turbines for the first time on Boxing Day. Gusts of up to 100mph meant that wind provided 50.7% of the country’s electricity.

It was the latest milestone in a decade-long ‘renewables revolution’ for the UK involving a huge growth in biomass, wind and solar power, according to Drax Electric Insights, part of coal and biomass power company Drax, which tracks the data.

With pandemic restrictions depressing demand, fossil fuels were edged out as the country enjoyed its longest coal-free period since the Industrial Revolution. Gas and coal power plants made up 36% of electricity generation in England, Scotland and Wales in the year to 12 December 2020, with 29% delivered by wind and solar, according to the National Grid’s electricity system operator (NGESO). 


London becomes world’s biggest clean air zone to tackle illegal air pollution

With more than 95% of residents – and particularly children, immigrants and people of colour – exposed to illegal and unsafe air pollution, London is taking radical measures to clean up its transport act by making its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) 18 times bigger.

The world’s first ULEZ was introduced in 21km2 of central London in 2019 by the Mayor’s office, forcing all drivers entering it to abide by strict vehicle emissions standards or pay a fee. Revenue from the fee is reinvested into the city’s public transport system.

The policy stopped 44,000 polluting vehicles from entering the city each day, cutting harmful Nitrogen Oxide roadside emission levels by 44%, and reducing CO2 emissions from transport too. 

Its expansion to London’s outlying boroughs in October 2021 will create the world’s biggest clean air zone. It will work alongside other new measures such as electric buses, car-free school streets, low traffic neighbourhoods and major increases in cycling infrastructure to begin shifting the city’s traffic mix away from dominance by the private car.  

The US considers 10-year infrastructure boom to hit net zero 2050 targets

An ‘at once optimistic and sobering’ report by a team of energy experts at Princeton University sets out a series of challenging 10-year energy infrastructure construction scenarios for getting the USA to net zero carbon emissions by 2050

The team concludes that reaching net zero by the mid-century is technically feasible and even affordable through a wide spectrum of strategies that could rely entirely on renewables or lean on technologies such as nuclear energy.

Any strategy would need to start immediately and would require huge levels of national mobilisation to execute policies such as installing almost 80 gigawatts of new wind turbines and solar panels every year, increasing the capacity of the national electric grid by 60%, making at least 50% of new cars electric, shutting down almost all the 200 remaining coal-burning power plants by 2030, and installing heat pumps in nearly a quarter of homes.

Sustainability back on the agenda for global fashion after pandemic lull

Sustainability went mainstream in fashion in 2019, lauded as a ‘year of awakening’ by McKinsey’s State of Fashion Report 2019. Retailers such as John Lewis removed 5p plastic bags and click-and-collect packaging, and luxury fashion group Kering pledged to be carbon neutral across its operations and supply chains by 2025.

Being sustainable took a back seat as fashion brands fought for survival at the height of the pandemic. But it was a temporary hiatus. German retailer Zalando is collaborating with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and its tech subsidiary Higg Co to introduce mandatory sustainability assessments for all brands selling on its platform. 

In August, Selfridges unveiled an ambitious sustainability programme called Planet Earth, demanding strict new sourcing standards for brands selling in its stores. The retailer also launched its first own-brand resale model.  

China announces higher carbon emission cuts by 2030

China has taken another step toward fully joining the battle to tackle the climate crisis with an announcement of new measures designed to begin seriously cutting its carbon emissions. 

The world’s biggest CO2 emitter laid out plans to cut its emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% from the 2005 level by 2030, while ramping its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2bn kW.

It follows President Xi Xinping’s surprise announcement in September that China plans to reach net zero carbon by 2060 and estimates a peak in emissions between 2025-2030. This was not as strong as the EU and UK’s 2050 pledge but represented an important shift in energy policy for a country that had not previously said that it planned to become carbon neutral.





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