The muted response to the UK’s latest climate change progress report highlights that the current approach isn’t working, observes Simon Rawlinson of Arcadis

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The UK has, for a long time, been making a lot of noise about our leading role in climate change. We were the first country with a statutory net zero carbon reduction target, we were leaders in renewable energy and our government has made bold pledges about the phasing out of combustion engines and gas boilers.

Simon Rawlinson New

Bold pledges are one thing. Bringing your people with you is another, and there is little sign that, in the battle against climate change, hearts and minds are being won.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) published its 2023 progress report on 28 June. On the same day, a story about Rishi Sunak’s choice of pen also broke.

The CCC report highlighted that the UK is squandering its early leadership position on climate change gained from rapid deployment of offshore wind. The Rishi story focused on his use of a disposable pen that has ink that can be rubbed out – thus putting the public record of government at risk.

The lack of response from an apathetic public also points to a failure in democratic accountability – not enough people are paying attention

Guess which grabbed the headlines? It is not hard to work out. Even as the Met Office confirmed that June 2023 was the hottest month on record, it was the pen story that came out on top.

This sad but familiar story of trivial news trumping uncomfortable truths points to a collective failure in leadership and governance. The lack of response from an apathetic public also points to a failure in democratic accountability – not enough people are paying attention.

The CCC’s latest report highlights issues that many have long suspected – particularly that the UK’s early lead in decarbonisation derived from bountiful wind energy is now being squandered, even as the pace of development accelerates. Given how successful the wind programme has been, with the UK in second place behind China in the installed energy stakes, this is a real problem for government, industry and the rest of us.

Perhaps even worse is the assessment that the UK’s global leverage, boosted by a successful COP presidency in 2021, has also dissipated. Lord Goldsmith recently resigned from his post as international environment minister citing the prime minister’s own disinterest in the environmental agenda as well as the abandonment of the UK’s pledge to spend £11.6bn of international aid on climate and the environment.

Viewed from the perspective of the construction sector, this is really frustrating. The whole industry – from clients to the materials supply chain – is responding to the net zero challenge. Furthermore, we are finding that sustainable projects and products are delivering  long-term value. Why are we not shouting more about this?

Turning to the CCC’s review, it contains 300 recommendations. Many of these are aimed at getting the UK back on track and are very far-reaching, including a moratorium on airport development until a framework is in place to assess and control aviation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

One problem is that isolated recommendations, such as a proposal to bring forward a ban on the sale of hybrid cars, are given disproportionate coverage when others,  including the rebalancing of pricing in energy markets, receive too little. The report is undermined in the public eye, even before it is received and considered for implementation by the government.

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Worse still, far-reaching and most likely unpopular policy options, like demand management, are barely discussed – putting off the day when the full scale of change to reach net zero is publicly discussed.

The day of reckoning is coming, however. With an election due by January 2025, our next government will be only five years away from meeting our Paris Agreement commitment, the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

Measurement against an international target means that current slow progress will no longer be obscured by past success and that concrete actions to ensure compliance will need to be put in place. Ideally, the need to meet this commitment should be aired at the next election.

It is clearly easier to direct business through incentives, regulation and reputation risk than to drive change into a semi-engaged population

Given current levels of public interest, however, I am concerned that this won’t happen. It is quite possible that a new set of policies and priorities will be nodded through with little debate or public engagement. This could result in further, partial implementation and a repeat of the cycle we see today.

On this basis, our statutory targets are not working. So what should we do? If we take the perspective of the construction sector, it is clearly easier to direct business through incentives, regulation and reputation risk than to drive change into a semi-engaged population. And this is where the next phase of action needs to focus.

Firstly, my view is that the political parties have to own the targets they have set, integrating them into their core mission. They can talk about green job creation and energy security in the short term, but ultimately the carbon reduction targets are set on behalf of future generations. Long-term policy cannot be delivered without leadership.

Secondly, we need to accelerate work on the technical aspects of climate change, the aspects that could be driven by a delivery body such as that proposed by Chris Skidmore. Cracking on with the technical content will clear the decks for the really controversial issues to be debated and decided – road building, oil and gas exploration or the future of aviation and hydrogen – issues that will affect us all, but which currently are barely being discussed.

Finally, we need to consider whether the CCC can engage more effectively with the wider public. Not to tell people what to do, because that is the job of politicians, but more as a means of holding ourselves to account.

So, what can we do? We can read the report, we can take individual actions and we can amplify the conversation – not just by what we do as individuals but as an industry as well. By amplifying the importance of the work of the CCC, we will help to ensure that our sector’s decarbonisation efforts are worthwhile.

Simon Rawlinson is a partner at Arcadis and a member of the Construction Leadership Council

Join us for the Building the Future Commission Conference on 27 September - buy your tickets here

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Join the Building the Future Commission Conference   in Westminster on 27 September to hear from leading figures across the construction industry and find out more about the work of the commission.

The day will include panel debates on net zero, digital transformation and building safety  as well as talks from high-profile keynote speakers on future trends and ideas that could transform the sector.

There will also be the chance to feed in your ideas to the commission and to network with other industry professionals keen to share knowledge. 

On the day, we will also be announcing the winner of our Future Thinkers’ Award, which will go to the most innovative idea submitted in our competition for professionals under 35-year-olds wanting to improve the built environment. The deadline for entries is Friday 18 August, and you can submit your entries by emailing   

About the commission

The Building the Future Commission is a 12-month project looking at radical and challenging ideas that could help transform the built environment.

The campaign aims to tap into innovative ideas, amplify them and be an agent for change.

The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of major figures who have signed up to help shape the commission’s work culminating in a report published at the end of the year.

The commissioners include figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal. See the full list here.

The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:

>> Editor’s view: And now for something completely positive - our Building the Future Commission

>> Click here for more about the project and the commissioners

Building the Future is also undertaking a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. There is also a young person’s advisory panel.

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