Policy & Public Affairs Executive
Construction Industry Council
The last couple of years have shown the stark consequences of climate change inaction and emphasised it is not just a problem for the ‘Global South’. We’ve seen deadly wildfires in the US and Australia and a recent ‘heat dome’ which sent a heatwave of nearly 50C to usually temperate regions in the North West Canada. If this has seemed a little remote, then the severe flooding across Western Europe has been a timely reminder of worsening problems.
As an industry, no one wants to be complicit in creating agricultural refugees, roasting temperatures and unpredictable weather conditions. With future global heating ‘baked in’ from current carbon emissions, adaptation in the built environment is a necessity but at the moment the broader costs of dramatically reducing emissions will be nothing compared to the impacts of the pandemic over the past year and a half, hence the renewed push to ‘build back better’.
And build we do. Globally we build the equivalent of a city the size of Paris every week. So should we be building at all?
I will say ‘Yes’, but things have to change. In construction I see an industry that needs direction but more positively than that I see an industry that – unlike many others – is serious about pushing forward and holding itself to account. I see professionals dependent on building for their livelihoods still able to offer objective solutions. I see an industry that is beginning to understand that it is no longer OK to say you just didn’t know.
It is true that there are those in the construction that intentionally drag their feet, but it is increasingly clear that these are the exception, rather than the rule.
I’ve seen some promising things since joining the CIC. I already know we have CIC members that are embedding a deep understanding of the climate crisis within their business strategy and many supporting much more purposeful legislation from government.
RIBA and others recently got a lot of media coverage from looking at embodied carbon and urging government to support refurbishing old buildings rather than demolishing them because of the carbon emissions embodied in constructing a replacement building. Other groups have suggested adding a ‘Part Z’ to Building Regulations to track and limit the full Carbon footprint of a development. These proposals have implications beyond climate change too. Defra estimates that each year we send 5 million tonnes of construction and demolition waste to landfill and 26 million tonnes of excavation waste is not recovered.
Halting all demolition will never be the answer – old buildings were rarely designed to last forever or meet all future needs - but there is a need to find a balance, built on knowledge, that can lead us through the climate emergency and set an example. And we know that there are two things that won’t work for us - building nothing or doing nothing.
One thing I’m particularly encouraged to see is the short timelines for engagement and action within the CIC’s climate change action plan. As former Secretary of State for International Development Rory Stewart once said, “Plans without dates are better than dates without plans”. A shorter timeline breeds accountability and focus which is the only way that the meaningful big picture targets can be realised. I’ve been around enough to see government departments come and go (remember DECC, anyone) and initiatives such as the Green Deal for Home Improvement flounder because of a lack of direction and support.
The UK’s hosting of COP 26 this year should represent a milestone in construction industry action around climate change and will now feature a day dedicated to the carbon emissions from the built environment on Thursday 11th November. CIC will of course be getting involved. By then I hope we’ll see something from government to dispel that any impression Number 10 is ‘always here for the harvest and never about for the ploughing’.
Contributor: Matt Mahony is the Policy and Public Affairs Executive at the Construction Industry Council