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A decade of change for the built environment

24 January 2020

Simon Wyatt, Sustainability Partner at Cundall, discusses why the 2020s will be a decade of change for the built environment.

As we enter this new decade, we stand at a crossroad for the future of our planet and for the first time we can clearly see what is ahead of us. Over the past few years we have seen the horrific scientific predictions from climate change modelling come to pass. From the recent forest fires that have decimated parts of Australia, Africa, North America and Southern Europe; to the ever increasing size and frequency of extreme weather events – intense rainfall, flash flooding, record temperatures, heat waves and droughts, it is apparent that the effects of climate change are upon us. Alongside the environmental damage, these effects are also starting to have substantial financial costs to individuals and organisations. If we continue on this trajectory it is apparent that the current fate of Australia will be played out all around the world, with the environmental, ecological, climate, human and financial implications too great to bear. Cundall are calling to mobilise a decade of action.

Given the current global political vacuum, the burden of responsibility falls on individuals and organisations to lead the way. Pioneering leaders like David Attenborough and Al Gore have paved the way for a new generation of activists like Greta Thunberg to drive the agenda forward. We are seeing more and more progressive organisations link their business plans to their environmental performance, often using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an overarching framework. Over 750 companies have now set Science Based Targets to limit global warming to 1.5°C, going significantly further than the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) set by the individual nation states.

To date the built environment has been the slowest sector to respond to the climate emergency with emissions generally increasing or at best holding steady over the last decade. But there are clear signs that things are starting to change, we’ve seen more industry action around sustainability in the second half of 2019 than in the whole preceding decade and we are expecting this to continue to shape the industry in 2020. With COP26 taking place in Glasgow, in November, it’s an excellent opportunity for the UK building industry to set an example for the rest of the world and lead the conversation on how to achieve net zero carbon in the built environment.

At the same time investment decisions are increasingly taking climate risk into account. With developers being required to report their climate change migration resilience strategies to Global ESG Benchmark for Real Assets1 (GRESB) and Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures2 (TCFD) in order to secure funding. In the near future, assets that have large carbon footprints or are at risk from the effects of climate change, will be financially unattractive and ultimately seen as a risk.

In 2019 the UK Green Building Council set out their framework for ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings’ (NZCB) as part of the World Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero programme, in which they outline their approach to making all new buildings net zero carbon by 2030, and all existing buildings by 2050. This is a great start, but the industry quickly needs to come to a consensus on what this means, setting intensity targets for all building types and methodologies for achieving them.

The most comprehensive framework we have for this at the moment is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) “Whole life carbon assessment for the built environment”, for which we just need to set clear targets against each of the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) modules from the European Standard EN15978. This would cover the material production, construction activates, building operation, maintenance and refurbishment through to its deconstruction and re-use of materials. Once agreed we must work together to get them enshrined in legislation for both new and existing buildings so that we can meet our net zero carbon targets.

2020 is set to be the ‘Year of Net Zero’, kickstarting a decade of change for the built environment, but this can only be achieved with a closer level of collaboration from all and immediate action is required in order to achieve this. The time for action is now.