Adam Savitz, director of sustainable infrastructure, EMEALA, and Paul Wrighton, director of sustainable infrastructure, UK and Ireland, at Johnson Controls look at the challenges of net zero targets.

London’s buildings are as diverse as its world-renowned culture. A skyline comprising anything from ancient cosy pubs to the 73-floor Shard makes the UK’s capital unique – but this also presents unique challenges when it comes to making London more sustainable.

With buildings responsible for 76% of the capital’s greenhouse gases, prioritising energy efficiency in London’s built environment represents the biggest, quickest climate win. 80% of buildings which will be occupied in 2050 already exist, and they are currently wasting 30% of the energy they consume. When we decarbonise and retrofit existing building stock, we can initiate energy savings that will last another thirty years or more.

Moving forward, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the IEA says we must double the global pace of energy efficiency from now to 2030. For London to achieve its 2030 net zero target, it will have to move even faster.

With this in mind, London Climate Action Week celebrates unique opportunities to lead with fair, inclusive, and just climate action, and encourages collaboration between all parties to drive sustainable change. We already have the technology - we now need the commitment, support, innovative financing structures, and skilled workers to put this into practice.

The roadmap to net zero

Leaders and society in London are already stepping up pressure to decarbonise buildings. As organisations start to recognise that energy efficient technology is working and producing tangible results, legislators are starting to pave the way for widespread adoption. Strong indicators include the incoming implementation of new energy-efficiency and electrification standards for buildings and the move from voluntary sustainability reporting to mandatory climate disclosure for financial reporting. Government and legal backing of sustainability strategies and technologies is starting to push buildings to net zero faster.

The key levers identified by the Greater London Authority (GLA) to make the biggest impact include retrofits reducing heat demand, mandated appliance and lighting efficiency, and financial mechanisms.

Technology to fit the building and the neighbourhood

In domestic or smaller buildings, sustainable technology takes its form as insulation and heat pump installations, boosted by digital building control systems – more focused, small-scale technologies. In larger spaces and high-rises, there is more of a focus on overarching strategies around energy efficiency, electrification, and systemic digitalisation to optimise entire buildings.

Going one step further, district-wide electrification of heating and cooling, especially the move from gas to large-scale heat pumps, takes the onus off building managers and tenants. Connecting properties to district networks that use high-temperature heat pumps to heat buildings, and even cool them, will help communities with buildings of various sizes and uses to work towards net zero.

Monitor, measure, manage digitally

Digitalisation, data, and the integration of IoT sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) are key enablers for energy efficiency and emissions reductions. The ability to baseline, measure, and monitor a building’s energy consumption enhances optimisation strategies, enabling tenants, owners, and managers to find opportunities for energy and cost savings. Digitalisation further boosts the energy and emissions savings from sustainable, high-efficiency equipment like heat pumps.

We can often be cautious when it comes to implementing these new technologies. However, as opposed to generative AI, like ChatGPT and Bard, that has no guardrails on its functionality, the purpose-built AI that underpins building management is completely contained, tested, and outcome-driven. This technology boasts huge benefits for real-time optimisation, as the system does not rely on an operator to detect anomalies and alert teams. For instance, AI-backed building management systems can work with IoT sensors to recognise how many occupants are in each room in a building and can change the rates of air conditioning, lighting, heating, and power accordingly, saving energy, emissions, and cost.

There is a misconception that these high-tech net zero solutions are expensive. However, with the right financing and tech partner, building owners can lower capital outlays and move to smart services – meaning that they can carry out building upgrades faster and with less risk. They can spread the cost and implement changes in stages, using energy savings at each stage to help fund projects, and making the swap to sustainable buildings more accessible. In some cases, where building systems are quite old, for example, the energy savings can even bring paybacks above project costs. This is especially important for London, where 77% of homes were built pre-1983.

A diverse solution calls for diverse skills

Although the technology exists and is proving its worth, there is a clear need for skilled workers to fit the volume of new equipment and systems needed to meet net zero goals. There is a huge skills shortage for technical engineers that can carry out this manual work such as connecting pipes and installing electrical connections, as well as for employees who can help design and implement net zero strategies.

Not only will these new skills drive sustainability benefits across London and the UK, but a focus on upskilling workers in poorer areas will help to boost disadvantaged communities socially and economically. Expanding the offering of equal opportunities for building a cleaner, greener economy is key to unlocking climate action across London’s boroughs, the UK, and the world.

Can London meet its 2030 net zero goal?

Creating a net zero capital city is no easy task – but is within reach. By embracing the diversity of London’s buildings, the sustainable technology available, innovative financing structures, and opportunities to upskill local communities, we can make real progress towards the mayor’s ambitious targets. Buildings can be our quickest, biggest sustainability win. We need to maintain our focus, avail ourselves of all our resources, and empower everyone who has a stake in a net zero future to play their part to get there.