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What does ‘well-adapted’ look like?

Retrofitting By Dr Elisabeth C Marlow, Principal Consultant, Sustainability – 16 May 2024

Floodwaters in the city of Lismore NSW Australia 2022


Head and sholders shot of Elisabeth in the London office

Dr Elisabeth C Marlow

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Dave Collins in suit in a park with trees, a path and wall in the background

David Collins

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Climate change is not a theory, it’s an observable set of impacts occurring here and now. Global headlines have recognised this in reporting on events such as flash flooding in Dubai, extreme heat closing schools in the Philippines, and the crippling of global trade due to prolonged drought in the Panama Canal region. This is why it is urgent to act on the IPCC 6th Assessment Report’s call for ramping up financial, institutional, and practical actions to improve climate adaptation for existing communities.

The number of people exposed to climate impacts and risk continues to grow geographically, as zones of extreme heat, disastrous weather events and sea level rise impacts expand, and in terms of the number of human lives exposed to preventable injury, ill-health and potential mortality.

Global population growth combined with the continuing shift of rural/regional populations into urban areas raises the stakes for humanity. By 2050, it is expected around 60% of the global population will live in cities – and almost none of them are adapted for the climate scenarios we face on our current emissions trajectories.

Achieving adaptation alongside emissions reduction requires policy and action at the individual country level, and support from all tiers of governance - national, state, and local – to enable practical action at the community scale.

It is not enough to focus on the individual commercial or residential building level or to put the onus on building owners to ensure their assets can handle climate shocks. Adaptation means retrofitting schools, hospitals, aged care, childcare, libraries, homeless shelters, and other buildings that the most vulnerable in our communities rely on.

The role of government leadership in addressing risk across the population is critical.

As our recent submission to the Australian Federal Government National Climate Adaptation Plan issues paper consultation
highlighted, effective and appropriate climate adaptation takes a holistic, systems thinking approach that is bottom-up.

When invited to consider what a well-adapted and resilient Australia would look like, we also considered what we know from other places in which Cundall operates including the Philippines, the Middle East and the UK, all of which face major adaptation and resilience challenges.

In developing pathways to resilience, it is important to consider the social and the environmental domains as an integrated whole. In addition, adaptation needs to occur in alignment with the principles of climate justice and climate equity, accelerating progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Policy, strategies and plans must address the most vulnerable and those with the least personal power or resources to implement necessary steps.

Linking adaptation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Australia currently ranks 40th out of 166 nations in progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This is despite the Australian economy consistently rating in the top 20 globally for GDP per capita, indicating that disadvantage is not being adequately captured by the simple GDP indicator often used to benchmark a nation’s relative financial health and general standard of living.

The 2023 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Report dashboard showed Australia’s progress has been going backwards on more than 30% of the SDGs including: no poverty (SDG1) reducing inequality (SDG 10) and Life on Land (SDG 15). We are stagnating on zero hunger (SDG2), quality education (SDG 4), climate action (SDG 13), life below water (SDG 14), and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16). Notably, the SDG progress review shows we are not on track for achieving any of the SDGs.

A well-adapted and resilient nation is one where social values are uppermost, with the achievement of the SDGs embedded into every aspect of governance at the institutional and policy level. Some of our clients are already recognising the value of the SDGs for informing sustainability strategy, using them as a way of framing material concerns and operational sustainability targets and goals.

Economic value flows from a healthy, educated and safe population, however, too often policy and discussion frames economics as something the community exists to serve. In our work and in our industry, best practice in design and delivery of any physical place puts the human experience and wellbeing at the heart of decisions, and policy must do the same.

Action required at the building and urban community scale

Further, urban planning, real estate practices and urban governance must centralise the role of buildings as places that serve human needs, protect people from weather, and enable family life and social life. Humans started creating buildings because we wanted to be safe from physical risks, this needs to be fundamental to our design, delivery and operational approach in property.

Directives around energy efficiency and passive performance, including retrofits for existing places, are also important. Buildings that are not adapted to extreme heat, do not protect from cold, and are high in energy demand cause new forms of energy poverty for households and small businesses, and need to be addressed through a combination of policy, regulation and financial levers. This is captured in SDG 11 – making cities and human settlements safe, resilient, and sustainable.

A focus on SDG 11 as an enabler and a foundation of the strategy is where the other SDGs are mobilised at the city/state scale. Furthermore, the words ‘human settlements’ are key – policy must not focus exclusively on major cities but also recognise the needs of regional and remote communities, including consideration of the buildings people occupy and the quality and sufficiency of infrastructure across energy, water, ICT and transport.

This also opens opportunities for decarbonisation approaches through strategic enabling of progress on addressing deficiencies in areas including public facilities, public transport, quality education and quality healthcare. In underserved communities or nations, this is where we can gain enormous ground in both lifting the standard of living and simultaneously progressing towards net zero.

Now is our safeguarding moment – and adaptation needs to be addressed with the same sense of urgency we feel when a storm, fire or flood is bearing down on us.
Because it is.