What might have been. In January, 2020 was shaping up to be a transformative year for the climate agenda. Inspired by cataclysmic floods and fires, the Extinction Rebellion and the stirring rhetoric of Greta Thunberg, the industry finally seemed to have woken up to the gravity of the situation and been galvanised into action.

Liz Hamson leader

Then, just as you thought things couldn’t get more biblical, along came the modern day plague of Covid-19, which has officially killed more than 33,000 people so far in the UK (the true number is likely to be much higher) and dealt the global economy the deadliest blow in recorded history. 

As the industry starts to process the news that the UK faces a “significant recession” after the economy shrank 2% in the first quarter, it now stands at a critical crossroads on climate. It can either do what it did last time, when the Global Financial Crisis struck, and turn left, taking the shortcut to survival and jettisoning any noble ESG aspirations along the way, or it can continue on the journey it was on and turn right, taking the enlightened path to a more sustainable future. I am hoping it will realise there is no choice and turn right.

The UK government was the first in the world to commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many companies have pledged to hit the target much sooner. But as UKGBC CEO Julie Hirigoyen argues in this week’s climate crisis special, we will have to reduce emissions by 40% to 50% within the decade if we are to stand a chance of staying within that 1.5 degree limit to the rise in global temperatures targeted by the COP21 Paris agreement in 2015. Given that the built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, that means it needs to start taking meaningful action now.

One area where major carbon savings could be made is embodied carbon in existing buildings. Around 80% of buildings that will be in use in 2050 have already been built and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a body of the United Nations – has identified the retrofit and refurbishment of current building stock as a key area where significant carbon improvements can be made.

There is just one problem. Pretty much all office development is predicated on the assumption that occupiers prefer new buildings, so developers tend to knock down and rebuild rather than reuse or refurbish.

Could the Covid-19 pandemic force people to rethink the traditional ‘demolition derby’ approach? FORE Partnership’s Basil Demeroutis thinks it could. FORE is currently retrofitting Tower Bridge Court in London. It will not just be a net-zero-carbon building in operation, it will probably be one of the first post-Covid-19 buildings to come forward and FORE has gone back to its design teams to find out what further changes need to be made in light of the pandemic.

These are the sort of changes that will need to be made now if people are to return to work soon – and some of them will not just assuage people’s concerns about Covid-19 but also benefit the environment, as the panellists in our recent Climate Crisis Challenge Zoom debate point out.

In other words, Covid-19 could actively help rather than hinder the climate agenda. Then it wouldn’t be a case of what might have been, but of what might still be.