The mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said his green agenda is a vital part of his plan to lure British and international visitors back to the capital.
In an interview with The National, the son of a Pakistani-born bus driver said preserving the capital's status as a global city was key to luring back international students after the cycle of lockdowns forced many to go home.
Five years after the Brexit referendum in 2016, the man who campaigned on the slogan "London is open" said the catchphrase remained vital as the UK looks to reopen its borders.
In a reference to the image of the red double-decker bus synonymous with London and a major draw for tourists, Mr Khan said that even in lockdown the city was transforming. The challenge is to entice the visitors who once flocked to the British capital to return once Covid restrictions are fully lifted, he said.
“Double-decker buses are close to my heart, dear to my heart. My dad was a bus driver,” he said at a ceremony to introduce 20 new hydrogen, climate-friendly public buses to the city’s fleet.
“When I first became mayor, I realised the diesel from our buses was leading to the toxic air in our city – nitrous oxide particulate matter but also, of course, carbon emissions. And over the last five years, we've increased by more than twentyfold the number of buses in London that are electric, so we now have more electric buses and hybrid buses that any city in Western Europe.”
London Climate Action Week begins on Saturday, designed to help raise awareness of the UK's role in promoting carbon-friendly policies ahead of the crucial Cop26 international climate summit in Glasgow in November.
Mr Khan said he sees the UN conference as a lifeline for transforming London as he launched the new fleet of hydrogen-powered buses.
“Not surprisingly, people in outer London don’t want to come to the West End,” he said.
“Going across our country, people don’t want to come to London. Across the globe, people don’t want to come to London. Actually, some can’t because of the pandemic. So we’re encouraging a rapid return.”
He said international visitors were vital for London's recovery from the pandemic.
“We desperately need the return of tourists to our city,” he said. “We've launched the biggest domestic marketing campaign ever seen in London's history. And I think that first experience back will engender confidence in people to return.
“My stance is very much the same [as the slogan]. We're going to continue to be open-minded, outward-looking and pluralistic.
“And one of the key things I've got to do in the next term is to help our city's recovery. That means banging the drum for trade, investment and for tourists to London, both from the European Union, but also from across the globe.”
He vowed to make London a top destination for international students after many were forced out of work when shops and restaurants were forced to close.
“We're going to make sure we don't lose our place as the number one city in the world to attract foreign students,” he said.
Asked how this would be achieved with border restrictions still in place, the mayor said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new deadline of ending social distancing restrictions on July 19 and this week’s review of the traffic-light system were key.
He said the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines was vital for the return of international travel to pre-pandemic levels.
“Going forward, because so many of us have now received at least one jab, maybe two, that will enable us to think about foreign travel as well,” he said.
“It’s really important that international partners speak to each other about how we can make international travel safe, recognising the fact that for any virus there are new variants. But I think that the vaccine so far has demonstrated that even with a new variant ... the consequences are less serious.”
Addressing the need to “reprioritise our energies towards a green recovery”, Mr Khan said Cop26 summit was an opportunity to show London’s green agenda to the world.
Mr Khan, who declared a climate change emergency in London in 2018, said the environment should be a priority in the post-Covid world.
“What is the future of our economy post-Brexit? I don't want to do low-skilled, low-paid jobs,” he said.
“I want us to have high-skilled, well-paid jobs – jobs that we can export in relation to skills, expertise and knowledge.”
He urged world leaders to set ambitious carbon emissions reductions in November, warning that the current generation needed to do better than the last.
“What we need from Cop26 are commitments from the really big economies – the Chinas, the Americas, the Indias – about what they’re going to do to make sure we address the issue of climate change,” he said.
“What we’ve got to do is make sure we're the first generation that gets it with solutions, rather than the last generation that doesn’t get it.”