The COP26 delegates have departed, but will we address the construction industry’s climate concerns?

Alasdair Rankin

asks Alasdair Rankin, managing director Aitken Turnbull Architects

AS we hopefully begin to emerge from one devastating global crisis, we are able to see how deeply embroiled we already are in another. 

The climate crisis is already having a devastating effect globally and will impact on us all. Like most crises, it is likely that poorer nations and communities will be hit hardest. 

Now, with COP26 having just finished and delegates returning to their countries, the drive to reverse our actions appears stronger than ever before. There is no question that the Glasgow COP will go down in history as a game-changer. Failure to heed the warnings and recommendations will only exacerbate the known problems. 

A typical first world response is to look to financial investment, emerging technology and science or trading our impact through offsetting schemes. 

As an industry we must play our part. As people who design and construct buildings and communities, we can have a role in addressing this crisis. While there is a place for technology to play a part in addressing the Climate Crisis, our response needs to go beyond a reliance on technology and offsetting and to look at ways of addressing the problem at source. 

What can be done to promote the development of sustainable communities? Do we even fully understand what that concept means? How do we tackle the embodied carbon in our buildings not just the operational carbon? How do we adapt and reuse existing buildings rather than simply demolish them? How do we move from allowing compliance at the lowest level to seeking to exceed targets and standards? 

The tax regime which punishes refurbishment and promotes demolition and new build, is a clear and present issue. Refurbishment carries additional risks in dealing with the unknown elements of the existing building, and risk translates to costs. Removal, or even a reduction, of the VAT on these works would promote more refurbishment, which by its nature is more sustainable. 

Project procurement doesn’t help. When so much of what is needed to combat the crisis is based on considering the longer-term impacts of our actions, the short-termism associated with our current lowest price procurement models, rather than a genuine life cycle costing approach, continue to perpetuate the problem. 

Very few of us in this industry can claim to be blameless, unless we have become members of the ‘Rubble Club’, our buildings will outlive us. 

That means bad decisions of the past, or even relatively neutral decisions made in a different context, will continue to add to the impact for many years to come.

Lack of knowledge and understanding of the opportunities and best practice compound the problem. How many of us genuinely understand all of the complexities of sustainable building and are aware of the opportunities and resources to counter the impact. Further, how many of us have been guilty of viewing sustainably as a marketing opportunity rather than a responsibility?

We all wish that the simple awareness of need and collective responsibility would be enough to motivate and promote change in our industry, and across all industries, however inevitably money will continue to be the prime motivation, a change to the tax regime, more rigorous requirements from funders even just the simple price reduction from mass adoption of sustainable practices will all help.  

Addressing the climate emergency requires input from us all. We must educate ourselves and our colleagues about our impacts personally and corporately and ways to address them. While the input and skills of experts will be vital to combating the Climate Emergency this is not something we can simply leave to the experts we must all be involved.

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