Constructing a Future with Climate Change

November has been one hell of a month for American journalists. The USA’s new president-elect and his ideas for the future of one of the world’s biggest superpowers has shaken many. Not least those concerned about the future of our planet.

Last week, Donald Trump’s senior adviser on matters relating to NASA announced that Trump intends to scrap all climate change research conducted by the space agency in a bid to crack-down on “politicized science”. It’s not completely surprising, considering Trump’s well-documented scepticism, such as his tweet in 2012: “[t]he concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”.

But this isn’t intended to be a rant about Trump. There’s a character limit for a start. And, frankly, who knows what will happen when he comes to office in January. In the relatively short time it has taken me to write this blog, he’s U-turned on his stance twice. However, the loud vocalisation of his views on this topic has brought the climate change debate back into public consciousness. Is global warming something we should be worrying about? Is it an issue that can only be solved by policy and legislation? What role does the construction industry play in all this?

Reality Check

The evidence for climate change is overwhelming, and difficult to ignore. According to NASA’s calculations, our atmospheric CO2 levels have risen dramatically in the last 60 years. With that, we’ve seen a warming trend proceeding at a rate that is “unprecedented in the past 1,300 years”. The link to interactive graphs below illustrate this better than words can.

NASA Climate Change

Whilst we question what the statistics mean, debate the extent to which they’ve been caused by human activity, squabble over the possible economic effects of taking preventive measures, the world is changing rapidly and irreversibly. As Voltaire eloquently summarises, “Men argue. Nature acts”.

In March this year, The Economist’s Sustainability Summit delivered the bottom line: we either come together and adapt, or we die.

Starting at Home

From a purely logistical point of view, pulling NASA’s cutting-edge equipment away from researching how global warming is affecting our planet will undoubtedly be detrimental. But what’s more troubling, and telling, is the attitude behind it.

Kofi Annan once said “[o]n climate change, we often don’t fully appreciate that it is a problem. We think it is a problem waiting to happen”. It seems like it is always someone else’s responsibility to solve it: other countries, the Government, the environmental agencies, the multinational companies. It’s up to them to come together and figure out what to do, isn’t it?

Not entirely. Whilst we hope/expect that the heads of our country will lead the way, Earth is home to all of us and we all have a responsibility to look after it, whether it’s directed by policy or not. And it’s at home, with our homes, where we need to start.

The UK is yet to ratify the Paris Agreement, although Theresa May has said this will happen by the end of the year. The Climate Change Act 2008 states that we as country must achieve at least an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 (relative to 1990s levels). With the built environment accounting for a considerable proportion of the country’s CO2 emissions, the construction industry needs to become part of the solution, and to see itself as such.

Climate Change Construction

UK Construction and the Climate

In the Autumn statement, the UK government pledged a £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund to help provide 100,000 new homes in high-demand areas, with a further £1.4 billion to deliver 40,000 extra affordable homes. This was welcome news for future homeowners and the wider construction industry. However, it raises an important question about the carbon cost of these homes.

Last year, the Government disappointingly axed the Zero Carbon Homes Standard. New English homes currently only have to meet the requirements for the conservation of fuel and power within 2013 Building Regulations (which were themselves significantly watered down due to the economic downturn). Whilst it may well be beneficial in the short term for developers to just build to compliance, the long-term consequences can’t be brushed under the rug.

One of the most prevalent arguments against implementing tougher regulations is that they are too strenuous and expensive to meet. But with the development of new technologies and approaches coming to market all the time, housebuilders can actually reduce their costs whilst build higher quality and more energy efficient homes.

Take Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS), for example. Their performance is well-proven and the panels are delivered to site pre-cut to every project’s individual requirements, including windows and doors. Therefore, they can eliminate many of the gaps between the design and actual performance of the building. It only takes a small site team a few days to erect the building too, helping to reduce build times and easing the current skills shortage.

Actions > Promises

The outlook for our little planet is bleak. But it’s not hopeless. The housing infrastructure fund offers the perfect platform for housebuilders, architects, and manufacturers to showcase their expertise and dedication to creating a better environment for everyone.

We are lucky to work with a number of businesses that are already committed to doing this. Whether they call it sustainability, net-zero energy, carbon reduction or going green, they making significant investments in innovation, looking closely at their supply chains, conducting strict reports on their facilities and taking a generally proactive approach to protecting our planet and our future.

A Final Thought

Through all of this, I kept returning to a quote by Sir David Attenborough. I thought I’d leave it here, as food for thought:

“Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad or an economist”

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