Given the importance – and extraordinary difficulty – of tackling climate change, we need to come up with some pretty spectacular solutions
The COP15 talks in Copenhagen are going to be some of the toughest ever undertaken. David and Ed Miliband, the foreign and climate change secretaries, have said a deal was in the balance. Speaking last week, David said: “This is too important to be left to the negotiators.”
That was aimed at the world’s political hierarchy, but it is a statement that is just as relevant to our sector, because we, too, bear responsibility for shaping the future. Already the engineering and design professions are starting to think about climate change in more abstract ways – more as the climate of change. In many ways this is inevitable because of the legislation that is beginning to emerge. For example, next year Part L will demand a 25% improvement in energy performance, and this is only the start. The Committee for Climate Change in the UK will police five yearly budgets to bring about cuts in greenhouse gases (GHGs) to meet the targets of the climate change act.
To achieve these targets the change curve for our industry will be exponential in the short to medium term because of the point from which we are starting. Some success can be gained from “doing the same as we do now but better”, but I suspect that will barely get us to the interim target of 34% by 2020.
We could rely on tightening the regulatory screw. However my feeling is that codes will not move quickly enough because of the work it takes to establish them. It is indeed likely that innovation in design and engineering will be the only way our industry can really pull its weight.
I would like to offer a concept statement: What we need are more low-carbon-ready buildings. You can equate these with High Definition-Ready TVs. When everyone knew HDTV was coming, how many still bought old-style units?
The same is true with a low-carbon-ready building, which will have been designed and engineered with an eye on ease of integration with emerging technologies. The potential for the client is the flexibility to be able to cut their building’s operational carbon output on a continuing basis.
When the carbon reduction commitment (CRC) becomes law next year, companies will be given an incentive to reduce their carbon outgoings, and punished if they don’t. If a client is commissioning a new building, it will not only be their sustainability director looking for a clean building – their finance director may demand that too.
If we pursue this thinking further, will developers be forced to adhere to carbon budgets for projects under “polluter pays” principles? A developer will obviously want to buy as few carbon credits as possible so it will look for the cleanest supply chain, the smartest materials and the neatest design package. All this is with the intention of creating a building with the smallest embodied carbon footprint possible and an ability to survive on a carbon diet unimaginable to most designers today.
This brings us to the potential benefit of gaining an early mover advantage. It is something that the prime minister has said the UK must strive for because of the amount of business that should result from infrastructure projects in particular. Historically the UK has been innovative in thought, but lacked stamina in delivery. For instance, we managed to increase the percentage of energy obtained from renewables from 1% in 1995 to only 1.8% in 2008 – meaning the challenge of getting to 15% by 2020 is a tough one. Compare that to the Danes and the Germans who have fewer wind resources, but are racing ahead.
I believe the COP15 talks should be on everyone’s radar. Whatever deal is reached, it will have relevance to our profession, whether you believe in the (overwhelming) evidence of climate change or not. This is no longer about philosophical debate or political ambition – it’s about how our day jobs will change.
Keith Clarke is chair of the Construction Industry Council and chief executive of Atkins