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Mitigate, adapt, become resilient: how the office sector can face climate change

Climate Change By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 24 June 2020

Photo of a grey city street that has flooded and a duck is swimming across the street


Simon Wyatt in front of office facade in a dark suit and blue shirt

Simon Wyatt

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The earth is heating up. Today, global temperatures are 1.1°C above the pre-industrial average. Within the next decade, temperatures are likely to hit the Paris Agreement’s aspirational limit of 1.5°C and, if we continue with current policies, experts predict that temperatures will rise by at least 3.2°C by 2100.

Temperature increases drastically impact our climate. Sea levels rise, rainfall increases, and extreme weather events – such as storms, heatwaves, floods, wildfires and droughts – become far more common. All of which creates profound problems for society – including the office sector.

It is therefore vital that we act now and act fast in the hope of alleviating the worst of the predicted outcomes. In order to achieve reduction on this scale, we need complete societal transformation to flatten the emission curves and allow our ecosystem to cope. Achieving net zero carbon must be at the heart of our response to this crisis. As the built environment is responsible for up to 40% of global carbon emissions, it is imperative that we develop scalable solutions to meet this challenge.

To respond, businesses need to become more ‘resilient’. Put simply, a resilient organisation is one that mitigates its own impact on the environment and adapts for a future climate far different from today’s. Resilience means having the capacity to absorb and recover from its effects whilst working to minimise the magnitude of adverse change. i.e. plan for the worse, strive for the best.

Resilience sounds abstract and perhaps a tad overwhelming. However new research from the BCO, available for free to members, aims to help. Titled ‘The Resilient Workplace’, it looks at the threats posed by climate change, and what we office sector professionals can do about them.

The research outlines five key steps developers, owners and investors can make to become more resilient:

1. Act proactively, implement a public sustainability strategy which sets ambitious sustainability targets for both mitigation and adaptation

2. Be diligent in investment decisions by ensuring they are publicly disclosing climate risks as part of wider environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria

3. Understand and disclose the risks to their own assets and have an adaptation plan in place

4. ‘Horizon scan’ and engage stakeholders to highlight the risk of changes in legislation and societal expectations

5. Engage with policymakers on city and regional resilience strategies which could help protect their assets

These steps can be tough to implement, yet they are important to make.

As a practical example, imagine building an office. Before construction, contracts should outline local climate-related risks, giving investors full knowledge. During design, future weather and climate data should be consulted, and plans set in place for potential extreme weather. Then, construction should take place using an environmental management system that covers climate risks. And, when in use, a building should benefit from having been built using circular economy principles, enabling it to be used flexibly and, if the time comes, deconstructed sustainably. Throughout, local policymakers will have been consulted and the office’s design would have considered the sentiments of stakeholders and society.

The research highlights the evidence behind climate change, and the scale of its impact. It can make sober reading. What’s most important, though, is for our sector to focus on what we can control. We can build and design more sustainably, and we can do in a way that enables our building to face tomorrow.

Achieving this will require change. We cannot go on designing 20th century buildings designed for a 20th century climate. We need to mitigate, adapt, and become more resilient. If we do so, we can build offices that can cope with the 21st century and all the risks posed by our brave new climate.