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Climate risks aren’t waiting – neither should we

Sustainability By Dr Elisabeth C Marlow, Principal Consultant, Sustainability – 01 August 2023

A city skyline at sunset.

A city skyline at sunset.


Head and sholders shot of Elisabeth in the London office

Dr Elisabeth C Marlow

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Put your hand up, if you have experienced a hotter summer and winter, more intense rainfall and general ‘we’re not having our usual weather for this time of year’? If so, you are among millions of people worldwide also noticing these signs of climate change.

Next question: do you consider that the global greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets that are being talked about in the media will be achieved by 2030, 2040 and 2050? And if yes, how much change do you think is required to shift policy, urban planning, development decisions, engineering practice and community behaviour?

The scale of the challenge is so large – but it also requires every single organisation, government and community to do its own small part within its sphere of influence. This means Environmental, Strategy and Governance (ESG) knowledge and skills are being truly tested, because to generate real change needs an overhaul of how decisions are made across sectors, not just within traditional sector silos. Impactful decisions require collaboration and systems thinking.

This means using words such as materiality, transformational change, adaptation, resilience, sustainability, and social participation.

But answer this rhetorical question truthfully - in the work that you do, can you genuinely adapt to doing things differently to enable the changes required to meet global sustainability targets?

Repeatedly, while sustainability professionals have been challenging how decisions are made, they have often been marginalised compared to the forces at boardroom levels advocating for business-as-usual. In the corridors of power, too many policymakers continue to delay on enacting measures that rapidly achieve adaptation and mitigation at scale.

The IPCC, the UN, climate scientists and sustainable development experts have all been very clear: policy must address all buildings, all communities and protect the lives of all persons and the wellbeing of the ecosystem on which we all depend. While we see a major groundswell at the local governance level of cities declaring Climate Emergency, we still need all national governments to stop tinkering around and step up, because lives are quite literally already being lost.

The very real consequences of global heating and destabilisation of weather patterns are themselves also conflicting with standard practice. The hazards of flooding, fire, storm and sea level rise are on a collision course with urban development. As insurance costs continue to rise because the building codes, planning guidance and all the other rule books are simply are out of date.

Plus, let’s face it, the politicians change their commitments too easily and even the best of sustainability practice is still largely optional.

Practicing at Cundall, we bring the best of ESG, net zero, sustainable buildings and infrastructure, understanding climate risks to the table and now, we are writing policy to support urban changes.

My only problem is we need more change, and everything, everywhere, and all at once. But good strategic thinking sometimes takes a little longer to generate because good changes require wide-ranging social participation to reduce vulnerability and exposure to hazards. It needs investment of time to support these conversations to understand what specific change needs to happen to ensure no-one is left behind. Good change processes also have to break through the ‘but that’s how we’ve always done it’ barrier because frankly, doing things ‘the way we’ve always done them’ is how we got to this breaking point.

It also takes time and the full suite of ESG expertise in conjunction with the insights from social participation to develop effective hazard scenario mitigation responses. This might sound like a tall order, but it IS entirely do-able. We have the skill – now we need collective will at all levels of decision-making to align and shape policy and practices.

We already know that existing assets are struggling. In too many places' buildings and infrastructure are not designed for the climate conditions that are emerging, nor are urban communities resilient to extreme events. We also know the energy system that buildings and societies rely on must be decarbonised.

At the same time, the existing urban fabric represents an enormous investment of embodied carbon and resources, so adapting and improving them is the most sensible approach from the ESG perspective. We need to do more work at the community scale to ensure buildings and communities are better connected socially to allow urban transformation to occur while also delivering on net zero commitments.

Next, we have to bring about a mindset shift that accepts positive change is real and desirable. There has been such a loss of faith and confidence, particularly among younger people, who struggle to consider systemic change as something that really can happen (although younger people are often the first to advocate for the necessity).

Ultimately, the more we can collaborate, and the more cross fertilisation there is between theory and practice, governance and practice and finance and practice the better.

I really don’t want to wait anymore - do you?