Our Part in the Fight Against Climate Change
It’s hard to stand against profit and convenience, but we must – for everyone’s sake.
What would you say are the two most important issues facing humanity today? I’d point to global nuclear war and global warming…and the problem is, only one of them is ever taken seriously. Climate change is a slow, inevitable threat, which doesn’t tend to galvanise us as selfish, reactionary humans. We can see a man with a finger hovering over a button and scream ‘don’t press that!’, but it’s a lot harder to identify the gradual, cumulative destruction caused by greenhouse gas emissions that’s happening all around us now (I write this having driven into work today).
Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would carry on for decades longer at least, given how long carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere and how gradually the ocean responds to change. We need to drastically slow our emissions now to limit the worst-case scenarios: sea level rise displacing hundreds of millions if not billions of people in coastal areas. In the meantime we’re already seeing the effects of more droughts and heatwaves, more intense hurricanes and flooding, and destruction of wildlife habitats due to changing weather patterns. It sounds dramatic, but it’s real: this is in our lifetime, on our watch, and if we don’t get a handle on it all together, our children will live in a very different world to ours.
So let’s get off the soapbox and talk about UK building regulations: how are we doing? Well, the fact that we have regulations that tackle sustainability in the first place is a very good start - at least the UK is taking positive steps to addressthe problem. However, there are serious problems with our existing building control bodies, as explained by Dame Judith Hackitt in her independent review after the Grenfell disaster: it isn’t currently in the building control’s interest to bring down the hammer on developers cutting corners, because developers can choose their building control body themselves. The stricter the building control body, the more likely they are to lose future business. The system therefore incentivises cheating or ignoring problems.
As with many safety systems, the priority is the preservation of human life, which is a great place to begin. But once the building is sound and there are no flammable or dangerous materials within it, sustainability issues need to come an urgent second. The building community as a whole needs to accept the moral and ethical requirements of that responsibility. Individuals cannot be expected to act in the collective interest, and in any case, wide-ranging policy change is needed now to make a difference – which means government regulation.
So what should happen? Building regulations needs to completely eliminate or offset regulated emissions in the built environment. According to the IPCC, the combination of electricity/heat production and burning fuels for heat and cooking in homes accounts for 31% of our global greenhouse gas emissions. We might not know how to get a plane across the Atlantic without using carbon, but we do have the technology today to stop inefficient and wasteful heating/electrical systems. Regulations should be set up to mandate this requirement. Of course developers, being profit-led, will always be behind when it comes to social responsibility. So building regulations need to adapt to this reality and allow the marketplace to align, through gradual but steep carbon offset payments. And all the extra money generated by the offset payment needs to be earmarked for renewable electricity generation. This money stream needs to be protected at all costs.
Of course, seeing solutions and having them implemented are two different things. The Government has backtracked on photovoltaic cells subsidies and also removed the local government’s ability to ask for standards above and beyond building regulations. Because all new standards are essentially voluntary, but still cost money to administer, not many are using them. Unless the developer, housing association, or end client have internal sustainability targets to adhere to, these extra standards don’t get adopted as they reduce the profit margins of the developers building the schemes.
But there is hope here still. Local government development plans are picking up the slack to some degree. The London Plan (depending on the borough) has been taking very good long-term steps. Bristol is another shining light on the hill. They have adopted long-term development plans that requirecarbon savings above building regulations to the maximum 19% allowed, by requiring renewable energy generation above and beyond that figure. Both councils are pushing the district heating agenda (with limited effect so far, but the effort is there). It’s good to see a diverse set of approaches based on local situations and circumstances.
If we mandated zero regulated carbon homes everywhere, as a baseline requirement, developers and builders might complain but they would do the work necessary to fall in line, and everyone would be working to the same, easy-to-understand requirements. However they go about meeting that baseline requirement would be completely up to them. Whatever local regulations are necessary can be decided by and discussed with the local government. The developers can’t and shouldn’t be responsible for offsetting the carbon used by non-system services, but if all developers were building to offset all the regulated carbon that building will emit - for 20 years, let’s say - then they will have done their part. Our government, our industry will have done its part. And that’s all any of us can do, as tiny parts of a billions-strong human whole: do the very best we can in our own spheres of influence, and then raise our voices in support of more.