World leaders at the Paris summit entered the final stages of negotiation over an agreement to limit carbon emissions this week


As world leaders at the Paris summit entered the final stages of negotiation over an agreement to limit carbon emissions this week, those seeking evidence of climate change and its causes did not have far to look.  

With more than 5,000 homes in Cumbria and Lancashire flooded, schools closed and NHS operations cancelled, those who argue that the UK is now starting to suffer from the impact of climate change had plenty of ammunition. Whether the scale of rainfall brought by storm Desmond in the North-west this week is a result of a changing climate is, for a one-off event, impossible to prove. But given similar events over the past few years, it seems much more likely than not.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Beijing issued its first red alert over smog, causing the shutdown of outdoor construction sites. So, as leaders entered the eleventh hour in discussions over new targets for curbing emissions once the current set run out in 2020, there was plenty to remind them of what was at stake. And that’s just on this week’s mainstream western news services - climate change delegates from countries like Costa Rica and Bangladesh will, of course, have far more dramatic stories.

The UK’s representatives in Paris went into the conference with strong rhetoric, with David Cameron telling delegates to take action today, “instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren”. But there is mounting international political scepticism about the UK’s own commitment to standing behind these words, as a result of a series of policy U-turns on climate change by the current government - most of them in the built environment.

So far, the UK remains on track to meet its most imminent targets for reductions in carbon emissions - of 29% by 2017 and 35% from 2018-2022 - despite these U-turns. But targets beyond that are far more challenging. And with the prospect, as Building went to press, of other world leaders signing up to tougher top-level commitments, the mismatch between the UK’s words and actions will be under deepening scrutiny.

The Climate Change Committee, set up to monitor the UK’s progress towards these targets and to advise on the cheapest way to meet them, has already warned that the uncertainty over long-term policy is the biggest threat to future progress on emissions.

This, of course, is a view which could apply to barriers to progress in many sectors, not least in the built environment. The same argument over consistency of policy was what led to the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission launched by the chancellor this autumn, with the body designed to safeguard long-term progress on infrastructure from short-term political decisions.

Perhaps, if Cameron is to escape making the kind of apologies tomorrow that he says he wishes to avoid, his government should give this commission a widened remit - not just over delivering the infrastructure necessary to secure sustainable energy generation (which already falls within it) but across the other areas of the built environment that can mitigate climate change - including retrofit and zero-carbon housing. The commission should be able to create the kind of certain environment for investment that, when it comes to programmes of work that could reduce the carbon impact of the built environment, is presently lacking.

This focus on climate change could also include responsibility for mitigating the impact of the damage already done, by holding the government to account on a programme of work that would alleviate the kind of havoc seen in the North-west this week.

The irony of a rain-jacketed David Cameron telling people in Cumbria that flood defences in the area “were not enough”, when the National Audit Office found last November that, under his leadership, the Environment Agency had seen its budget for flood defences cut by 6% in real terms from what it was in 2010-11, will not be lost on those who are facing the prospect of spending Christmas in temporary accommodation due to the damage to their homes.

Rather than apologising after the event, Cameron would do better to recognise that solving these issues should, like the overall problem of climate change, be above the cycle
of politics.

Sarah Richardson, editor