Life on the edge
We think of global warming the way a smoker thinks about lung cancer. We know, in a distant, abstract way, that what we are doing could have some serious consequences for our health, but we solve the problem by refusing to think about it. Smokers shy away from imagining the many kinds of interesting doctor they might be meeting in the future, beginning with the GP and ending with the oncologist and – if they're fortunate – the surgeon. And they certainly don't dwell on how they might feel about their former selves after the discovery of a malignancy: how weak they would appear, and how thoughtless.

As far as the environment goes, we have already been given the terrible news. There is a consensus within the scientific community that a connection exists between changes in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and changes in the weather. Compressed into a single sentence, the evidence is as follows. The industrial revolution increased the world's atmospheric concentration of CO2 by about 30%, and over the 20th century, the average global temperature of the Earth rose by 0.6ºC. This may not sound like a lot, but take a look at the graph of temperature on page 42: 0.6 is the fastest and largest shift in our climate for 1000 years, and has led already to spectacular changes in the behaviour of weather systems. We know, for example, that the area of the Earth covered by snow has decreased 10% since the 1960s (when we acquired the ability to measure such things with satellites) and we know that the Arctic ice sheet has thinned 40% in recent decades. Meanwhile, ominously, like a tap dripping in the background of a film noir, the earth's oceans have been rising one or two millimetres every year for the past century …

The causal link between CO2 and global warming is not as well established as that between tobacco and cancer. There are scientists who do not read the "anthropogenic signature" in the weather – but that is beside the point. The precautionary principle requires that we behave as though global warming were a proven fact; if we are wrong, all we will have done is sacrificed some economic growth and cleaned up our act a little.

So far, the response across the globe has been to cap greenhouse gas emissions where possible. The Kyoto protocol, signed by industrialised nations in 1997, committed them to reducing their output to 12.5% below the 1990 level by 2012. At present, the UK looks like being the only country to meet that target: CO2 emissions last year were 9% less than they were in 1990. That is largely a happy side-effect of the dash to gas-generated energy, but given the fact that Britain's economic output has grown 30% in the past 12 years, it is still a considerable achievement.

The bad news is that it will not, by itself, significantly mitigate the rise of sea levels. The momentum of climate change is such that thermal expansion and ice melt will increase those for at least 1000 years whatever we do. Then there is the fact that out of every seven babies born on our planet, six emerge in a country that is not a party to the Kyoto accord. And that includes Russia and the USA …

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the taskforce of eminent scientists that provides policy advice to the UN's member governments, has a worst-case scenario. It predicts that in 2100, the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere could be almost 1250 parts per million, compared with 368 in the year 2000. That translates to rise in sea level of 0.88 m, and an increase in global temperature of as much as 5.8ºC. The best-case scenario is a 1.4ºC rise, which is more than twice the temperature increase in the past 100 years. In the 20th century, Britain moved south at the rate of 12 m a year, in terms of its weather; by the end of our current century, London could be south of Marseilles – assuming the north Atlantic drift, the current that brings warm water from the Caribbean to north-west Europe, stays where it is.

Good for us. But we should bear in mind that, of all natural disasters, flooding is second only to the global pandemic. China has regularly suffered unimaginable carnage – in 1931, for example, about 4 million people were drowned by the Yellow River. And if the IPCC's worst-case scenario comes true, Bangladesh, present population 112 million, would be 16% smaller – and much more vulnerable to the kind of cyclones that killed 120,000 in 1991.

Long before we reach the year 2100, it will become apparent that something has to be done about global warming. The size of the problem is so immense (Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking has already comforted us all with the confident prediction that it will wipe out life on Earth within 1000 years) that there is an excellent chance that it is going to lead to a shift in the grounds on which British political system is built [People energy time, page 47].

For the past century or so, that system has been broadly organised around the fight between capital and labour. That struggle now appears to be over, at least on level of politics, rhetoric and ideology. If you ask young people in 2003 what issues they are concerned about, "what you hear again and again and again is the environment", says a construction industry academic, speaking of his students in general and his 14-year-old son in particular. "They're not interested in political parties; it's all the environment." In other words, it is likely that a different political conflict will begin, albeit one that has continuities with the 200-year punch-up between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

The advertised effects of global warming are, apart from greater risk of flood and drought, changes in land use, such as the kinds of crops that can be planted, changes in patterns of disease, the sharp increase in heat-related deaths among older age groups and the urban poor, widespread population displacement and more extreme and unpredictable weather. There is also the risk of what is called non-linear (that is, catastrophic) change, but at this point you are probably sufficiently depressed without going into the implications of that.

What is clear now is that these changes – which really do seem inevitable – are going to have the greatest impact on the countries that are least able to bear them; that is, the ones with the greatest number of vulnerable people and the most brittle economic and social systems.

When this happens, generations in the developed world that are already attuned to abstract concerns about the well-being of the natural world will be incensed by the misery they see on their superb, high-resolution plasma television screens. And that immiseration will appear to be visited on the south by the north – a kind of postmodern carbonic imperialism.

We've had, since the cultural shifts of the 1960s, the beginnings of an outline of the political position that the eco-generation will adopt. Bad: the materialism of the affluent north; reflex consumerism amplified by an omnipresent media that elides possession and enjoyment; the exclusive importance of the self; economic growth as the organisational principle of government. Good: the spiritualism of the impoverished south; the importance of what you are rather than what you have; the overwhelming importance of the social and the global; sustainability as the organisational principle of government.

Instead of politics being a question of locating oneself on a line that bends from left to right, we could have a struggle between forwards and backwards, linear and circular; instead of bosses vs workers within the factory, we could have ecologists vs bosses and workers over the right of that factory (or that road, that airport extension, that office block) to exist.

The implication of this is that the basic activity of construction companies – building stuff – is going to become contentious in a way that it never has been before (Twyford Down, Manchester airport and the Newbury bypass notwithstanding). In an environment where the public locates construction companies among the bad-hats despoiling the north and drowning the south, those companies are going to be under pressure to re-establish their bona fides – and it will take more than a few PR hirelings pointing out the etymological link between city and civilisation.

Some companies may refuse to bow to that pressure; they may take the view that they are simply an agent for their clients; that what the client says goes and the public be damned. This would be foolish. You may think that the claims made in Building and elsewhere about the importance of ethical investment and the FTSE4Good index are overcooked (and you'd be right); you may say that in 10 years nobody will remember who built the Newbury bypass (and you'd be wrong); and you may be able to find quality recruits from the eco-generation if you offer them right package. On the other hand, there is a good chance that the rest of the industry is going to represent itself as (small f) friends of the Earth, thus making you the company that springs to mind when a politician or an activist wished to conjure the devil.

In this respect, a short case history may be instructive. "Eco-warriors to target Tarmac in day of action" yelled Building on 25 June 1999. Tarmac had been singled out for special attention because it built the M5 extension through Twyford Down – subsidiary charges were its construction of "houses that only a small percentage of the population can afford to live in" and PFI prisons.

What is clear now is that these changes – which really do seem inevitable – are going to have the greatest impact on the countries that are least able to bear them; that is, the ones with the greatest number of vulnerable people and the mo

Tarmac pleaded in vain that it cared deeply about the environment – once a brand acquires an association in the public mind, it tends to stay associated. Ratnered, you might say. Senior executives started telling journalists off the record that if they had their time again they would not be bidding for that bloody road.

Tarmac's construction and engineering arm was lucky, though. It was to be demerged, and so had the chance to slough off its scaly Tarmac skin and grow something a bit fluffier. In the event, the newly demerged contractor – Carillion – spent £1m on a logo that would have prompted Walt Disney to call for a sickbag. It was a leaf, a star and a pool. The leaf was a metaphor for "growing and sharing the environment", the star denoted aspiration, and the crescent-shaped blue pool connoted, in some mysterious way, the firm's traditions. The extraordinary general meeting that followed still got sprayed with liquid faeces, and Sir John Banham was soaked with milk, but the firm had turned the corner. Anyone doubting the effort that Carillion continues to put into eco-aware brand positioning, not to mention eco-aware construction, is invited to check out its sustainability report at

That said, we should have a sense of the kind of dilemmas that will be chewed over in the political debates to come. The first point to make is that we have the ethics that we can afford. It has been estimated that the global market for airport infrastructure over the next 20 years will be worth £300bn. It has also been estimated that aviation is the world's fastest growing man-made source of CO2 in the atmosphere. About 16,000 commercial aircraft inject 600 million tonnes of it directly into the troposphere every year. What is the relative impact of those two facts on a company's decision-making processes? And how does the chair of a cabinet committee decide between the minister arguing for economic competitiveness and the minister arguing for sustainable transport?

And it's not just a case of profit against planet; there are contradictions within the idea of sustainability. A good example is Newquay airport. This is an ecologically unsustainable bit of infrastructure used by affluent visitors who fancy a weekend's surfing or a trip to the Eden Centre, and who probably wouldn't come if they had to take the train. On the other hand, the Cornish economy depends on the money they bring with them – and there's such as thing as social sustainability. How will individuals, and public policy, weigh the outcomes?

It is inevitable that the state will try to face both ways at once: more economic growth, more houses, more sustainability – John Prescott's new communities plan is a pretty good example of this – and it will try to square the circle by putting the Building Regulations on an eco-escalator. There are a couple of problems here. The first is that all the easy changes to building practices have now been made, and the latest regulations, such as those for airtightness, energy efficiency and acoustic insulation, are causing the industry considerable grief. Robust standard detailing came as a concession to a real cry of pain – expect the industry's delegates to the policy-making community to get really stroppy in the near future. The second is that it doesn't really address the most important thing: energy lost through the existing housing stock.

That can't address that through the taxes, because the poorest people live in the worst insulated homes; they can't be taxed within an inch of their lives while the middle classes drive 4×4s to Sainsbury's to buy green beans air-freighted from Kenya on planes powered by kerosene protected from duty by 3000 or so international treaties. A more promising option is some kind of domestic carbon credit system. You simply give a development a score for its environmental impact – there are a number of systems around – and require the developer to cancel out a surplus by, say, installing a CHP system or insulating the lofts of 100 houses in Krakow. It's an ecological extension of the section 106 planning gain system.

This kind of extension to the industrial carbon-trading system may become the key delivery vehicle for carbon regulation. This is particularly the case if it is mated with the European Commission's energy efficiency directive. One likely scenario is that, by 2033, anybody who sells a house in the European Union will required by statute to conduct an energy audit of their property. If that audit showed the property to be below a certain carbon benchmark, expect a proportion of the selling price to be spent on bringing it up to scratch.

And while we're on the subject, by 2033, as the eco-squeeze becomes tighter, expect all power to be generated locally, thus slashing energy costs by at least 80%, and expect the UK Building Regulations and the EU rules to agree that you can't build anything that isn't carbon negative: in other words, you may find that your development will have to generate electricity for the 20th-century stuff in your neighbourhood.

IF WE ARE THINKING ABOUT GLOBAL warming with an appropriate degree of moral seriousness, then there are no positives. Forget Shropshire's growing reputation for Chardonnay. On the other hand, it's a fair bet that there will be opportunities for agile companies to expand into eco-construction, and create an attractively green brand identity for themselves and the industry as a whole.

For contractors and housebuilders, the environmental factor probably adds up to a net drain. True, the world's biggest ever civil engineering project is just over the horizon (the Southend–Sheerness flood barrier), more extreme weather will generate a great deal of extra repair work, and some firms can pick up a reputation by going over their sites with a pair of tweezers to remove every last bit of waste (Thomas Vale take a bow). But generally it is going to increase the administrative hassle of developing and building: all those regulations, all those tests, all that recycling …

It's different for architects, though. They have the opportunity of establishing an expertise, a reputation and a thriving business based on their green credentials. The weird thing is that so few have made significant progress. According to one student of my acquaintance, who is taking a master's degree in energy efficient building at the Architecture Association, its Triangle bookshop has no books on green design, and the RIBA has almost none.

Some architectural and engineering practices have interpreted their corporate client's brief in a way that has resulted in intelligent, beautiful and eco-friendly buildings.

But the point it not to interpret the brief, but to change it.

If we're taking this subject seriously, there are just a few ecological entrepreneurs who are really tackling the problem. While we're on this subject, we should namecheck Woking council's astonishing Allan Jones (the subject of one of the most memorable features to appear in Building over the past 160 years – see 14 March 2003) and BedZED's Bill Dunster. The problem with the second of these gentlemen, according to his peers, is that many are a bit scared of working with him, because he really does take the environment seriously.

Two final thoughts: if the public authorities are serious about green issues, we should expect them to give Dunster some land and some funding. At the time of writing they are providing neither and he is doing the rounds of City investors looking for a lousy £10m; watch Wandsworth council to see if they cough up the land they promised for one of Bill's SkyZEDs. You may even want to write to them on this subject (


A brief history of filth We couldn’t cover Building’s 160th birthday without mentioning the fierce and sustained campaign that the magazine waged for better public health in the Victorian era. As we know from the great historians of 19th-century squalor, Mayhew and Booth, conditions were unimaginably grim in the rookeries of London and the other monstrous cities of dreadful night heaped up by the industrial revolution. Rather than the inevitably abstract problems of global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain and so on, our great, great, great grandparents had to deal with the intimate horrors posed by their daily proximity to foul air, poisoned food, excrement and corpses. The urban dweller in the 1840s lived in daily fear of the effect of toxins on their health. On 2 October 1847, one TA Smith lectured concerned Londoners about the chemical and biological war that their own city waged against them. Of all the contaminators of the atmosphere, he told them, sulphuretted hydrogen was the most poisonous. “It escapes from the decomposing animal and vegetable substance in dwellings, dustbins, slaughterhouses, burying grounds and cesspools. It has the most injurious tendency, and no one can pass the gullyholes of their sewers with being affected by it. There is not a house in London that escapes from this poisonous effluvium,” Mr Smith informed his quivering audience. The literary echo of this is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, where food and wine is poisonous and the business in transacted under dust heaps of rotting filth, or Karl Marx’s account in Capital of bread adulterated with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, soap, dead black-beetles, putrid German yeast, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stone-dust and “other agreeable mineral ingredients”. Building, too, could find poetical prose in the contemplation of the awful truth. “Since the death of the proprietor in 1839 no fresh burial has taken place,” it intoned in the 1840s of a chapel, with corpses buried under its floor, that had been turned into a dancing-hall. “Over this charnel-house of corruption are these revelries held, and the malignant gases that permeate through every fissure are inspired by the crowds who have nightly visited it. Death overtakes them — they perish, and in some neighbouring burial place balance accounts with their survivors by rotting, and disseminating amongst them the same dangerous elements that cut them off. And thus the game goes on, the living tread upon the dead, fill up their vacant places, and leave no blank; and, in their turn, the dead cut down the living …”

Eco timeline

Ernst Heinrich Haekel first to use the term “ecology” to describe the study of living organisms

Svante Arrhenius argues the greenhouse effect from coal and petroleum is warming the globe

London smog kills 1000; Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, beginning the modern ecology movement

America holds its first Earth Day

The Club of Rome publishes The Limits to Growth arguing for an immediate end to population growth and pollution

Worst industrial disaster in history takes place at Union Carbide methyl isocyanate plant in Bhopal, killing and injuring 400,000 people

The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is held in Kyoto

Population of India at midnight on 1 March is 1,027,015,247

Death of last wild tiger

Building of sea wall around Britain, largest engineering project ever undertaken

Stoke-on-Trent replaced by 70 square miles of PV hydrogen generators

Alcohol replaces petrol as main source of vehicle fuel

Reintroduction of steam train

First resource war breaks out between EU, Japan and USA over control of Antarctic oil deposits. It lasts one hour 35 minutes

Beginnings of permanent settlements between the Euphrates and the Tigris; domestication of the dog

Wheel reinvented


people energy time
For almost all of man’s existence, almost all of our energy has been derived from sunlight. The Earth’s energy budget is about 1.53 billion calories per m2 per year – none of which would be available to us if it weren’t for green plants.

These photosynthesise about 3% of the sun’s energy into complex organic compounds, which we can eat, or feed to animals that we can put to work and eat in their turn – but very rarely. Only 10% of the plant energy ingested by an animal is passed on to the animal that eats it. Humans have, with a very few historical exceptions, been overwhelmingly vegetarian. The agricultural revolution that began 10,000 years was concerned with developing more efficient and effective ways of collecting this plant energy; much later, plant power was supplemented by wind and water mills. But, at the birth of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 18th century, 85% of our energy came directly or indirectly from plants. All of that juice came, so to speak, from the Earth’s current account. The fuel that powered the steam engines that supplied the energy for the industrial revolution came from sunlight stored in the fern forests of the Paleozoic and salted away in the Earth’s crust. Humans cracked the planetary safe, got their hands on the globe’s life savings and spent, spent, spent as if there was no tomorrow. We have enjoyed an utterly unprecedented 250-year spree. The result of this debauch, so far, has been that a proportion of mankind – us – has exchanged the problems of general scarcity for those of general superfluity. Our main concern has been to find the time and space to do all the things that we can do. We can’t work and socialise and go snowboarding and raise children and learn Aramaic and develop a drink problem and retreat to a monastery and start a community recycling scheme, and so on – although all these options are open to us individually. In the end, we are constrained by a lack of a life to accommodate them. In the end, we make ourselves scarce. The result is that when we consider the environmental difficulties we face, we see the problems associated with fairytale wealth – how to drink a lake of wine, how to eat a mountain of meat. That is not the experience of most of our planetmates. The benefits of the energy bonanza has been distributed with gross asymmetry: the wealthiest 20% of the population owns 83% of the globe’s assets, the poorest 20% owns 1.4%. Or, to put it another way, a person in the developing world uses about 16% of the energy used by a person in the developed world – partly because one half of the world depends on wood, dung and crop residue for its energy. To put it a third way, our energy bonanza has increased gross human unhappiness. The real problem of oversupply is now, as the graph below makes clear, that of people. To change the metaphor, the sudden availability of such a huge quantity of energy has blasted the population of the earth into the sky. The result has been that much of third world has fallen into a Malthusian trap, whereby population expansion exceeds the growth in basic resources – never mind the capital investment required to build schools, roads, utility networks and so on. By 2020, twice as many people will live on the southern shores of the Mediterranean as the northern. The only possible solution is probably the one we are least likely to take. That is, aiming for rapid economic growth in developing countries, assisted by free technology transfer, protected home markets, import substitution, subsidised agriculture and all the other policies that the IMF and the WTO are dead set against. Development is, as we know, the best form of contraception. It is also the only way to make the high population levels of the future sustainable. The process will have to be rapid, and we have to pray that technology provides some answers, because we are faced with the awful certainty that our supply of fossil fuel is about to run out, as the graph predicts. Global reserves of oil are estimated at between two and three trillion barrels; demand in 2030 is estimated at 27 billion barrels a year. At that point, there may be about 80 years of oil left. What happens when there is none? It has been said that if we breed like rabbits, we will die like rabbits. And if that population line falls back to earth, the means by which it does so will make the Rwandan genocide look like a glass of spilled beer.