The government’s proposals for a low carbon economy are going to keep construction busy for years – if it can develop the leadership and the vision to respond to them

Have you read the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s UK Low Carbon Transition Plan yet? No, I suspected as much. It has the potential to join A Brief History of Time as one of the most important unread publications in recent history.

You really should read it, though. It is a child of the Climate Change Act 2008, which set out how much the UK will have to cut its carbon emissions over the next 40 years, and the trajectory it will need to follow to achieve it. Apart from anything else, that is now a matter of binding legal commitment (something else that is probably not widely appreciated).

Given the boldness of the legislation, and how new this territory is, the Transition Plan is a highly accomplished piece of work – but I don’t think even its biggest fans would call it a “plan” in the conventional sense: it sets the destination, but not the details of the route. That work really falls to each of the affected sectors; and for that reason Lord Mandelson, the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, has commissioned a team to undertake a strategic review of the construction industry’s readiness to deliver on the low carbon agenda, and to develop a route map for the transition to the very different world that would follow a 26% cut in emissions by 2020, and an 80% cut by 2050.

The mark of a coherent industry is that it has a plan for its own future. That calls for vision, and a clear direction of travel. All of that is the product of leadership...

Together with the whole issue of public procurement and support for the industry in the downturn, this low carbon construction study has been a key priority in my first three months in post. Its Emerging Findings are published this week, and they must speak for themselves; but there are some particular things that I hope the industry will take away. The first is that, for those alert to opportunity, the transition document can virtually be read as a business plan for construction over the next 40 years. Almost every proposition in it represents a market for construction if the barriers between the possible and the doable can be overcome. (The possible exception is the reduced use of agricultural fertilisers; I’m still working on that one.)

We need to develop new buildings that enable their owners and occupiers to lead more energy-efficient lives without loss of comfort. We need to extend the same thinking to the 28 million existing buildings in the UK, and make them as good as they can be; and we need to build the infrastructure that will support the production of “clean” energy and the operation of sustainable transport systems; and so it runs on – a programme measured in hundreds of billions of pounds.

The “we” is important too, because the second great opportunity is to use the transition to low carbon to engineer a parallel transition to the more integrated, collaborative and progressive industry that has long been a broadly shared vision of how things should be – but which is another destination for which we have no detailed route map.

We need to make the 28 million buildings in the UK as good as they can be; and we need to build the infrastructure that will support ‘clean’ energy and sustainable transport. A programme measured in hundreds of billions of pounds

And if we can do that, then we will also build an industry that attracts brighter and brighter people, keen to get involved in one of the greatest causes of our age.

However, we cannot wait another generation to make our move, so the last key message relates to leadership. Responding to my saying at a recent conference that I had been struggling to find the leadership of the industry, Jonathon Porritt rather crossly asked what on earth I’d been doing for the past three months. The industry, he said, is full of leaders.

But an industry that is full of leaders is not the same thing as an industry that is led. In an expression that I have been working hard, but which is difficult to wear out, the mark of a coherent industry is that it has a plan for its own future. That calls for vision, for the creation of a shared sense of purpose, and for a clear direction of travel marked by good example. All of that is the product of leadership, and we will know the leaders when we see them: they will be at the front, waiting for nobody’s permission to be there.

So the final hope is that the transitions to low carbon and high performance will be seen as part and parcel of the same challenge, and that the leaders we need to get there will declare themselves: high impact people for a low impact world.