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As we transition to a net zero carbon economy, are we building resilient communities with the climate of the future in mind?

Sustainability By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 15 July 2021

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Simon Wyatt

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With less than 150 days until the world’s climate leaders congregate in Glasgow for COP26, Simon Wyatt turns his focus to one of the key themes on the COP26 agenda – adaptation and resilience.

The UK Government has commitment to transitioning to a net zero carbon economy by 2050, which will require the retrofit and decarbonisation of millions of square feet of commercial, domestic, and public sector real estate. The question is, will these net zero carbon buildings be fit to for the climate of 2050 and beyond?

We’ve already seen global mean temperatures rise by 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. So even if we meet the Paris Agreement’s aspirational target of limiting global mean temperature rise by 1.5 degrees then the climate that our buildings experience in 2050 will be significantly different from what we are currently used to. Will our buildings and infrastructure be able to cope with these changes?

The modest 1.1°C rise we have already observed has resulted in increased heat waves, forest fires, flash floods and sea level rises. All of which have been regularly splashed across the news in recent years, brutally illustrating the significant global impact of climate change that is occurring already.

The best-case scenario will see at least another 0.5°C rise, however if we continue with current policies, experts predict that temperatures will rise by at least 3.2°C by 2100. So, what climate should we been designing the buildings of the future to meet?

In previous articles I’ve raised the requirements of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) which necessitate organisations to publish mitigation strategies on climate change using tools such as the Climate Risk Real Estate Monitor (CRREM).

TCFD also requires organisations to consider the resilience of their business and assets against our changing climate, requiring them to conduct climate risk assessments and look at developing adaptation strategies to deal with risks. These risk assessments are key to future proofing organisations against both physical and reputational risk using a risk-based approach.

A risk-based approach looks at the impact of a range of climate change scenarios and the costs of adaptation measures required to reduce these risks. For example, what is the cost impact of an event happening versus the probability of it actually happening? A way to illustrate this point is to look at the potential cost of a sea wall if it were breached due to rising sea levels. The damage could be billions of dollars, so even if the probability is low it would be worth the modest cost for reinforcing the sea defences now, rather than a potentially much greater one later on.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces a number of climate change projections based on advanced climate modelling. These projections have recently been updated because the old ones significantly underestimated the speed and effects of climate change. At just 1.1°C of warming, we are already seeing the occurrence of a lot of the events they predicted would happen at 2°C of warming, and this is truly concerning.

Organisations and designers should use these scenarios to understand the risks and impacts of a range of temperature rises so that they can make informed decisions about what design conditions they use. For example, when designing infrastructure like the HS2 rail line, the probability of a high emission scenario with over 3°C of warming may be low, but the cost of retrofit if they don’t design to these levels of resilience could be very high, so it makes sense to be conservative in these instances and design for the highest emission scenario.

Architects and engineers need be considering these scenarios when designing and retrofitting buildings, however current UK design standards generally do not include any allowance for climate change, and where they do, they are not in accordance with the latest climate science and predicted scenarios. As a result, anyone designing to current UK standards is putting their assets at risk.

The industry needs a significant review of its standards to align with the latest climate science and therefore safeguard assets and investments against future weather scenarios. If we do not do this, the buildings we design to be net zero carbon now, may not be fit for purpose in the future.