As the Labour Party attempts to force a vote in the Commons declaring a nationwide ‘environmental and climate change emergency’, is it time for us who operate within the built environment to wake up to the stark realities of our warming world?
The past weeks have seen a flurry of climate activism here in the UK – from the Extinction Rebellion and their provocative pink boat to teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s lucid calls for action. Many in the world of business and the media have insisted that these protests and speeches are over the top; that they overestimate the myriad challenges climate change poses and are a form of fearmongering and dooms-daying. Well, they’re not – the waves of activism we are currently witnessing are overwhelmingly in line with the scientific consensus.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the de-facto international authority on climate science, global emissions must be halved by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050 to give humanity a fighting chance of remaining under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. The consequences of 1.5 degrees of warming – let alone two and three degrees – are unpredictable and potentially catastrophic.
Even as someone who has been banging the drum for decisive climate action within the property sector since I was president of RIBA back in 2005, I am unnerved by the scale of what is needed to meet our responsibilities under the Paris Agreement. Eleven years to half emissions is no time at all in the world of development, with millions of our buildings’ lifecycles far outstretching that. In the world of finance, 11 years is a little under two business cycles, which means that capital ought to be flowing in the right direction right now.
Fortunately, a lot of people ‘get it’ and the prevailing sense of inaction is turning into action, perhaps even panic. Within the built environment, we can deliver zero-carbon schemes at a reasonable price, something deemed impossible only a few years ago. And as the UK’s electric power grid continues its decarbonisation with the rollout of wind and solar, the operational energy required to run these buildings is becoming less carbon intensive.
But despite the technological and innovative prowess the sector has shown in new-builds, the policy landscape has slid backwards since 2010, with the Code for Sustainable Homes being binned, the Soft Landings protocol to reduce the building performance gap dropped and the requirement to display energy efficiency certificates abandoned. To step up to the climate crisis, these policies need to be reversed with immediate effect.
However, none of this even mentions refurbishment. And, believe me, there is a lot to be done. Zero-carbon new-builds are great, but their impact is massively outweighed by the emissions from the sheer quantity of carbon-intensive stock still in operation. Retrofitting these buildings needs to incentivised and the quickest way of doing that would be removing VAT on refurbishments, as France has done, or at least by equalising VAT across all construction. To cut our carbon, we need to cherish our old stock as much as our new.
This is where climate action could even turn a profit. A nationwide retrofitting programme would have a variety of economic and social benefits, creating jobs, stimulating local economies and improving the quality of people’s homes. Better insulation, for instance, would go some way in reducing fuel poverty. And when combined with the rollout of localised clean energy sources, climate action could help eradicate fuel poverty altogether.
As a sector, we are at a crossroads – one road leads to the right side of history, the other to the risk of monumental loss. Continued inaction is now as dangerous as outright denial and, as a sector, we must move quickly and decisively, demanding the policy changes required to effectively rise to the challenge of climate change. Britain ushered in the age of carbon emissions through the Industrial Revolution; it ought to be the first to wave it goodbye and lead by example.
Jack Pringle is EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will