Later this year, COP15 – the equivalent to COP26 but with a focus on improving biodiversity – will take place in China. Last year, in the lead-up to COP26, it was encouraging to see real estate companies pledge to achieve net zero by 2050.
So why has COP15 not been getting the same attention? Biodiversity is crucial because it supports the ecosystems that clean our water, purify our air and regulate the climate and recycle nutrients, providing the basis for the likes of food and medicines. In essence, biodiversity keeps us alive.
However, biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. According to the UN, up to a million plants and species are at risk of extinction, threatening the future of humanity.
Because one of the main causes of biodiversity loss is land use change, the built environment is much to blame. We in the property sector should therefore take responsibility. For too long, the focus has been on sustainable design – or ‘do no additional harm’ – but to reverse the damage we need regenerative design – architecture and design that has a net-positive impact.
There are huge creative opportunities for those of us in the sector to integrate nature as infrastructure into the built environment, like the Vertical Forest in Milan: two residential towers covered by 800 trees and 15,000 plants, which provide a habitat for species including 1,600 birds and butterflies and which have significant measurable benefits for environmental quality. Other Vertical Forest buildings now exist in cities including Paris and Eindhoven, but we need to build more.
More cities also need to follow the lead of the New York High Line, perhaps the best-known example of the wider social benefits of repurposed infrastructure, regenerating not only the surrounding environment and ecology but also reconceiving our cities and how we inhabit them.
Natural habitats likely to be lost to urban growth store an estimated 4.3bn tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to the annual emissions from 931 million cars. This highlights that efforts to cut carbon emissions through the likes of the pledges alongside COP26 and action to improve biodiversity should go hand in hand. It is time for the industry to start placing the same emphasis on nature as it has on climate change.
Andrew Tempany is technical director of Stephenson Halliday – an RSK company