Canary Wharf is hard to miss. Even in the middle of the night, long after workers and cleaners have clocked off for the day, the lights in London's financial district are left firmly on. At the time of writing we're more than three months into the coronavirus lockdown, but take a walk along the Thames tonight and you'll still see Canary Wharf bathing the surrounding area in its fluorescent glow.
While this constant illumination might be appreciated by helicopter pilots and amateur landscape photographers, it does raise important questions: Why is the last person out not turning the lights off? And what toll is that twinkling skyline taking on the environment?
According to analysis by VICE, the amount of energy wasted annually is colossal. The electricity used to keep the lights on overnight across just 15 landmark buildings in Canary Wharf – roughly 14 million kWh – is enough to power 4,514 homes a year. In terms of emissions, 3,260 tons of carbon dioxide is being unnecessarily pumped into the atmosphere each year, the same amount produced by 710 cars.
VICE News analysed the most recent non-domestic Energy Performance Certificates available for One Cabot Square, 5 Canada Square, 8 Canada Square, 10 Upper Bank Street, 11 Westferry Circus, 15 Westferry Circus, 20 Bank Street, 20 Canada Square, 25 Bank Street, 40 Bank Street, Citigroup Centre, One Canada Square, One Churchill Place, 25 Cabot Square and 30 South Colonnade.
Using this data and the floor space of each property, we could estimate the buildings' annual energy consumption and emissions using the formula 207kWh x sq m, which is based on the average power usage of non-domestic buildings. From here, we could calculate how much of the energy used is for lighting and for unnecessary lighting during the hours the buildings were usually empty.
First, we calculated the value of 52 percent of the total energy used, which is typically the proportion of electricity to gas. We then used research by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which identified that lighting represents 25 percent of electrical energy use, to figure out lighting consumption alone. From that, we were able to deduce how much power is used to keep the lights on between 8PM and 6AM, when the vast majority of workers will have left the buildings.
The Citigroup Centre in Canada Square, home to Citigroup's EMEA headquarters, is estimated to waste the most energy, at around 1.9 million kWh a year. The electricity consumed by unnecessary lighting at the 200-metre-tall building could power 615 homes annually, and produces 444 tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the amount pumped out by almost 100 cars a year.
The 45-storey HSBC Tower at 8 Canada Square comes next, wasting roughly 1.84 million kWh a year, or enough electricity to power 595 homes, followed by One Canada Square – the second tallest building in the UK, and home to more than 50 firms – at 1.82 million kWh.
Understandably, these figures are dwarfed by the overall amount of energy consumed and emissions produced by the buildings during working hours. But if the UK is serious about its commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, significant action is needed to limit the impact commercial buildings have on the environment. With that in mind, it would be unwise to overlook the small stuff – flicking the lights off, for instance – and the positive difference this can make.
Firms across the UK say they are working to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency. Some of the buildings in Canary Wharf feature motion-sensor lighting, for instance, that can be triggered by security and cleaning staff long into the night.
A spokesperson for 30 South Colonnade said: "Thomson Reuters, the tenant up until recently [April, 2020], is a 24-hour global news organisation which would have had staff working in shifts around the clock across multiple time zones. Now that the building is vacant, the lights are off when no one is present. We have exciting plans to redevelop the building and are targeting net-zero carbon emissions, which if achieved will put 30 South Colonnade amongst London's most sustainable buildings. This will include sophisticated lighting control to ensure lights are only on when people are present, daylight dimming to minimise energy use when the sun's out, LED bulbs and smart energy monitoring systems."
A Citigroup spokesperson also said they have changed motion sensor times so that lights "turn off quicker", and switched off perimeter office lighting to reduce consumption. The bank also said there are reasons why its building is not completely dark during the night.
"All lighting is on motion sensors, so for a location that is EMEA HQ, there are people working outside typical working hours and so triggering motion sensors for the lighting to come on," the spokesperson explained. "In addition, there are security and cleaning personnel that walk the floors and hence trigger the lights. There are also requirements for lighting, in the common areas like corridors, lift lobbies, which we are required to keep on for security and fire, [danger to] life reasons. Maintenance work is often conducted in evenings and weekends, which necessitates lighting being on."
When I asked why lights have been left on during the lockdown, a spokesperson for The Canary Wharf Group (CWG) – which owns and manages One Canada Square and 40 Bank Street – said there is currently "a great degree of deep cleaning happening on floors, and these generally take place at night".
They also noted that electricity usage was down 25 percent across the CWG estate between the 9th of March and the 9th of April; that managed areas are subject to switch-off regimes; and that it has installed LED lighting – which uses far less energy than conventional light bulbs – extensively.
However, Caterina Brandmayr, a senior policy analyst at the Green Alliance think-tank, cautions against justifying unchecked electricity consumption with the use of energy-efficient technology: "While LED lighting is more energy efficient, leaving it on when not necessary is still a waste of energy."
Trewin Restorick, an environmental campaigner and the founder of Global Action Plan, says highlighting the use of such technology is "a really lame excuse". "LED lighting is more energy efficient, but still consumes energy to use, and resources to create and dispose of," he adds. "A far more efficient solution is not to have the lights on in the first place."
Leaving the lights on – regardless of if they are of the LED variety or not – during the coronavirus lockdown, when the capital's streets and skyscrapers have been deserted, is even harder to justify. With the majority of companies adopting work from home policies to protect their staff, there is little to warrant buildings being lit up. Yet, we photographed Canary Wharf from a flat in Wapping every night from early March until late April and could see that lights were left on late into the night at buildings including One Canada Square and 8 Canada Square.
Keeping lights on at this time also appears to defy the environmental responsibility statements made by businesses across the capital. Restorick says: "In this time of crisis, the behaviour of companies is being increasingly scrutinised by the public […] It should be obvious for any company that has made a commitment to address climate change to do something as simple as turning off the lights when buildings are not being used."
Real estate businesses say they are increasingly adopting the use of cleaner energy. The Canary Wharf Group has been purchasing only electricity from renewable sources for its estate since 2012; all of the electricity used across Barclays' property portfolio in the UK, including One Churchill Place, is generated through renewable sources; and JPMorgan Chase plans to rely solely on renewable energy across all its buildings worldwide by later this year.
However, Brandmayr, of the Green Alliance, argues that the use of renewables should not give landlords carte blanche to squander energy with impunity. "They might be using cleaner energy, but the point is that they are still wasting it, and there are still resources going into generating those renewable assets," she says. "Just because the energy has come from renewables and is clean, it does not mean you are entitled to waste it as much as you want."
A fundamental shift in behaviour and awareness is crucial if property owners are to drive positive change, say the experts. For Brandmayr, that means greater transparency and policy requirements; she suggests mandatory disclosure of buildings' operational energy performance, coupled with regulation to raise minimum efficiency requirements over time.
"The fact that we don't have information about exact use is one of the major barriers to investment in energy efficiency," Brandmayr says. "We should require disclosure of in-use energy performance for non-domestic buildings on an annual basis. Government should introduce operational energy ratings and raise the bar over time with policy. There is waste happening quite literally overnight."
BNP Paribas (20 Canada Square), Qatar Investment Authority (8 Canada Square), Hines (25 Cabot Square) and Morgan Stanley (20 Bank Street) did not respond to a request for comment.