As the GLA’s environment adviser, Isabel Dedring has to convince banks, businesses and more than 7 million Londoners of the need to cut carbon emissions 60% by 2025. She tells Emily Wright how she intends to make the case

Isabel Dedring is a trilingual Harvard graduate with a degree in Russian, but her current job has presented her with a whole new set of linguistic challenges. As the Greater London Authority’s environment adviser, she has to convince everybody from householders to banks to play their part in realising the capital’s ambitious green targets.

“It’s all about identifying exactly who you are talking to and choosing language that will resonate,” she says. As an exercise in communication, it sounds about as easy as translating the collected works of Tolstoy, particularly as these are issues that people, in general, are not interested in listening to. So, with London committed to reducing carbon emissions 60% by 2025, how does she plan to get the various interest groups on side?

The Dedring way

Since she became the GLA’s environment adviser in September 2008, Dedring has been responsible for delivering several key programmes to meet London’s highly ambitious green targets. These include extending the capital’s 10 low-carbon zones, improving its green spaces, and delivering the flagship homes retrofit programme. Pivotal to the success of all of these programmes is the 38-year-old Dedring’s ability to convince London’s 7 million residents and many thousands of businesses that making London greener matters to them personally.

“You have to communicate on a level people will get whether they are householders, huge companies or banks,” the former policy unit director of Transport for London says from her office in City Hall. “In many cases, the best tactic is actually to deprioritise the green agenda altogether and go with saving money. Instead of, ’You must do this to save the planet’, ’This will save you money on your bills’ can be much more effective.”

Another factor when dealing with big businesses, she says, is competition: “In London the big players all know each other and you don’t want to be the one guy at the table who hasn’t done your bit. Big developers like Land Securities, Heron and British Land are egging each other on. It’s good to play on that, use it as an incentive rather than this ’do the right thing’ narrative.”

Not if, but how?

Dedring is confident that the environmental goals set out by London mayor Boris Johnson in early 2008, including that 60% target, are achievable: “All the policy and programmes we have in place can get us to the main commitments,” she says. “This isn’t about ’we need new policies’, but the delivery of the ones we have got.”

Chief among these is the flagship programme to retrofit homes. Existing homes emit 38% of London’s carbon dioxide, and Dedring sees reducing this figure as a battle to be fought on two fronts: the first with the public and the second with investors.

Dedring regards the programme’s pilot phase, which is being funded by £9m from the London Development Agency (LDA) and includes work on 10,000 homes across nine London boroughs, as pivotal to getting more home owners on board. The scheme currently operates on a door-knocking basis and offers home owners a survey by an energy assessor and up to 15 “easy to install” free energy efficiency measures.

Dedring says: “We asked ourselves questions like, what’s going to generate the take-up rates you need? Should we call people, leaflet houses or knock on doors? What sort of measures are likely to be taken up by people to install in their homes? Will people actually use the things? All these issues are being tested at the moment to monitor how things work.

“Then we can go to people running the energy efficiency programme and say, ’Look at this research. We now know that you can get into one in three homes by doing x, y or z.’ Then they believe in it. You just have to demonstrate it to people.”

Dedring says that, as the programme widens, the competitive element comes in once more, as householders don’t want to be the only ones in their area not signing up.

The money men

But wooing London’s householders will be a waste of effort if Dedring fails to win over the banks. The GLA aims to retrofit 200,000 homes by 2012 and 1.2 million by 2015, expanding the programme to deliver measures such as solid wall insulation and renewable technologies.

While the plan is to develop a pay-as-you-save solution for homeowners to pay for the measures through their energy bills, start-up funding is still needed. The LDA already has a fund of £100m set to be released by the end of the year to part-fund projects and is expecting a further £500m of leverage from the commercial sector. But to make sure targets are hit and that the programme expands quickly enough, millions more pounds of funding is required.

“If you approach a bank, you are not going to get put through to a guy who knows all about energy saving and deals with these systems all the time”

This is easier said than done when most of the big banks still don’t even have an energy efficiency financing department: “If you approach a certain bank or maybe a big commercial firm, you are not going to get put through to a guy who knows all about energy saving and deals with these systems all the time,” she says. “It is all still this weird, weird product and there are issues over which department it should be given to, so it’ll end up being bounced around lots of different people. The message we are promoting to try and change this is that energy efficiency is commercially attractive.

“In the case of the public sector building programme [the Building Energy Efficiency Programme] that we’re doing, on the first 42 buildings you will get a £7m payback over seven years and 23-30% carbon savings. That’s clearly a business case that stacks up and is worth doing. But it’s down to this issue of an upfront payment.”

She adds that talks with banks and commercial firms about funding are going well and that, once again, it comes down to finding the right language: “In business you can’t just say, ’Here is the logical way to do this, so we’re going to go and do this’. Organisations don’t work like that; they’re not quite that rational. The strategy involves being much more nuanced about the arguments that work for different groups and recognising that people are not convinced by facts alone - they are convinced by what they’re going to be able to get out of something. So if we can show banks that energy efficiency is commercially viable, then we will be a step closer to trying to get them to help make our programmes free upfront.”

Despite concerns over how little grasp of the green agenda some big players have, Dedring says that one of the best engaged sectors is construction. “Some of the ideas we put in the London plan revisions [the draft of which was published in January], were based on suggestions that came from the industry,” she says. “Quite a lot of people seem keen to see a 106-based buy-out approach, for example - so, if you can’t deliver the carbon savings in a particular location, you are able to actually pay into a fund for carbon reductions elsewhere. We have said in the plan that we would like to see more planning authorities taking that kind of approach.”

In terms of new build, she highlights air quality as a major issue: “When the industry picks up again with a number of large central London developments, and Crossrail, we’ll be focusing on air quality and hoping that construction firms sign up to an approach that tries to minimise air pollution from building sites where possible by considering off-site construction.”

A word of warning …

Boris Johnson said recently that if environmental issues in London were not tackled quickly, then the capital would be looking at a future of “flood and drought”. Dedring points out that, actually, this is a scenario we are already dealing with. “London is drier than Rabat in Morocco for a capital and we already have a lot of surface flooding around the Thames and its tributaries. Tens of thousands of homes regularly experience flooding in London. This whole ’it will be fine now but terrible in the future’ is wrong. That’s why it is crucial to get the public, as well as key players like the construction industry and the banks, on board promoting the programmes, and funding the schemes - even if the hook has to be what it can do for their bottom line.”

Dedring’s CV

  • Was born to two German parents but has been based in New York for most of her life
  • Has degrees in Russian and law
  • Worked for McKinsey and Ernst & Young, where she spent two years working in Kazakhstan running a team that helped oil and gas companies set up business there
  • Joined Transport for London in 2003 as chief of staff to the transport commissioner before spending five years as director of the policy unit