We can be the generation that changes our way of life and mitigates climate change. But for fundamental change to happen, we need to move away from the tunnel vision on carbon emissions, writes Michelle Sanchez
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report back in March of this year – the AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023. The report is a very comprehensive analysis of the state of the climate emergency based on eight years of work undertaken by the world’s best scientific body on climate change.
While the report highlights the urgent need for drastic action and substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic events, it also shows a way forward and the potential for immediate change to address the problem.
When it was published, people from all over the construction industry published different opinions on the results. At one extreme, there were very negative reactions, essentially saying that there is no way to mitigate climate change in time, and we are not going to reach near net zero by 2050. Others responded by saying that industry could be doing more, but if we continue pushing we might still achieve the goal and comply with the Paris Agreement.
Personally, I think we as an industry, especially in UK and EU, have been doing the work. Obviously there is a lot to do, and we need to continue doing more and improving. But I firmly believe that we are going to be the generation that changes our way of life and finally achieve what others could not. We simply do not have any other option.
We are forgetting that sustainability engages with a far greater range of issues than carbon emissions alone
One of the most important conclusions that we as architects need to take from this report is the effect that we can have by rethinking the way we design and focusing all our efforts on moving forward with a sustainable approach to construction. You can see our impact when analysing the ten key solutions needed to mitigate climate change that is illustrated in the IPCC report. The construction industry has a direct impact on two of the top three solutions.
Investing in clean energy on the one hand, retrofitting and decarbonizing buildings on the other, are number two and number three on the list, and yes, we need to keep working on finding answers to support those solutions. But you also notice that there is a lot more that we can do, because we can also have a positive impact in number eight by enhancing biodiversity.
The problem I see in the industry is that we have forgotten that sustainability is more than just about carbon emissions. We in the industry have a tunnel vision on emissions, and we are leaving behind the real goal of a sustainable development model.
There is much to do in terms of carbon reduction in the industry, but by focusing all our efforts and resources into carbon reduction, we are forgetting two major things. First, sustainability as a concept goes beyond environmental impact. Sustainability was defined by the UN back in 1987 as the balance of the environmental, economic, and social impact of any project.
We are forgetting that sustainability engages with a far greater range of issues than carbon emissions alone. Secondly, our industry has a lot more negative impact in other areas than just the 40% contribution to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.
Now that we have a way forward to reducing the operational and embodied carbon, we need to look at sustainability as a whole and identify other areas where our industry is causing harm. Biodiversity and social responsibility come out as “big ticket items” that we need to tackle next.
Biodiversity is more crucial to our way of life and our economy than we realise. Climate change is one of the indirect impacts of urbanisation and accounts for 11-16% of global biodiversity loss. Business as usual is no longer an option. We as an industry need to do better.
44% of global GDP in cities is estimated to be at risk of disruption from nature loss. Infrastructure and the built environment is responsible for 29% of the threatened species. And according to the World Economic Forum, that impacts directly on economic activity around the world.
We need to start thinking of sustainability in a more holistic way. That doesn’t mean leaving behind all the efforts that we are putting into achieving net-zero carbon. But we do need to rethink what we can do to enhance biodiversity, to conserve potable water, to impact in a positive way not only the local communities, but also the employees running the manufacturing process or the materials that we are specifying.
We need to start being more open about how our buildings have performed
If you read the IPCC report, you will understand that mitigating climate change requires more than carbon reduction only. In order to really change our way of life, we need to rethink everything. We need to find a better way of designing buildings and measuring the real sustainability levels – not just one aspect of their environmental impact.
Another key item to tackle is transparency and knowledge sharing. Our industry is very good at highlighting and awarding designs that look good. But the industry is not very good at acknowledging mistakes, missed opportunities, or lessons learned to improve and do better next time. As Hoesung Lee (IPCC Chair) said: “Transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritise risk reduction, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably”.
We need to start being more open about how our buildings have performed. And be more conscious of the impact that our buildings will have. We need to put sustainability in front of every design decision, every team discussion, and every research idea.
We at RSHP are committed to improving the way we design buildings; we have a strong history of having sustainability and environmental design embedded into our design process. We are coordinating a way forward to improve the way we assess buildings on different sustainability key performance indicators. We see the IPCC report as essential guidance in moving forward meaningfully and ensuring we deliver on our goal of a more sustainable future.
Dr Michelle Sanchez is an architectural designer and sustainability lead at RSHP