Seven steps to sustainability

SPIE UK, George Adams, sustainability, global warming, climate change

The challenges of global warming and climate change demand dramatic responses — with the focus on our cities. George Adams of SPIE UK shares an engineer’s perspective on the huge challenges we face.

Reflecting on Einstein's view that ‘logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere’ it seems to me, in the context of our cities and the future impacts of climate change, we need to start using our imaginations soon if we are going prepare and act on decarbonising our existing urban environments.

I suggest that 21 years of COP21 means we have spent too much time debating and fudging this issue!

I believe that unless we change the way we behave soon, by 2035 we will see carbon emissions soar by nearly another 30% due to energy consumption, we will experience an increase of over 40% due to the global consumption and the population rising by 1.3 million per week, and our habit of consumption increasing exponentially.

Some might see these figures as ‘just’ statistics, but let’s look at some other facts. To drive back the damage being done to our environment it's been assessed that we need to invest at least 2% of global GDP in tackling the issue of global warming. To achieve this we need to push our policy makers to make ‘better’ decisions. We need to reduce the energy consumption of our existing cities by at least 70%; to meet this critical objective we need to increase the focus and importance placed on the role of building-services engineers and maintenance managers.

Beyond this, it is clear to me that one of the best chances we have of safeguarding our future is by investing in processes and technologies to transform our urban areas into intelligent sustainable cities; that's where the imagination part comes in. Society and industry alike need to be encouraged to adopt a behavioural shift, we must promote one-planet living and encourage tangible investments towards the empowerment of our cities and their people.

In this respect, let's consider the area of diversity and inclusivity. The built-environment sector is the perfect example of a market that needs greater diversity. In the EU, about 14 million people work in the industry, and only about 12% of them are women. All areas of the industry need to encourage diversity and bring in people with strong environmentally based views — people that will change our industry from the inside out. With the industry needing 400 000 new entrants over the next five to 10 years in the UK alone, the behavioural shift needs to happen quickly.

I say we need to develop intelligent sustainable cities, but perhaps there’s murkiness about what a sustainable city is? In my opinion, there are seven objectives that a city needs to meet in order to be considered sustainable.

1. Environmentally friendly behaviour

Did you know that cities consume 75% of the natural resources we take from the planet? This is fast outstripping the Earth’s capacity to replenish those resources. We need to learn how to reduce consumption, fast, maximise the volume of material and waste recycled from our buildings and achieve a much longer life span of our existing buildings.

2. Low-carbon economy

Knowing the dangers of global warming, nearly 20 years ago, a 2 K limit on the increase in average global temperature was put in place. Despite this we have already reached the 1 K global warming level and are rapidly moving to a point beyond the 2 K limit. This is extremely dangerous, and the only way to slow it down is to move to a new economic basis, one without a dependency on carbon fuels, using natural energy instead of fossil fuels. The great inventor Thomas Edison told us that back in 1931. We need a significant reduction in fossil-fuel use, an adaptation of existing buildings and geo-engineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

3. Place and space for people

Cities exist for people; they are places where life and business should thrive together. Key to this is the quality of the space provided; a lack of quality space has a direct and negative impact on a person’s wellbeing. This in turn affects business efficiency and our feelings of social responsibility. Our existing spaces largely need to be re-engineered to be more hospitable, cleaner, fresher and with better air quality.

4. Use of innovation and technology for high levels of efficiency

We continue to invest in new, innovative and complex technology for our buildings; everyone wants to make use of the latest tools and gadgets. Unfortunately our tools rarely work ‘properly’ or efficiently; the same goes for most of our buildings. We need to fix this because innovation and the appropriate application of technology can reduce energy consumption significantly. Technology can be used to improve the internal environment of buildings and make a contribution to whole-life solutions that improve the value of a building. It is established now that good-quality buildings with optimised energy efficiency have a higher market value.

5. Harmony with natural resources

We would need two and a half ‘planet Earths’ to balance out our current consumption of resources and support our unacceptable behaviour. The entire spectrum of the built environment industry needs to come together to promote cultural change so we can be in harmony with our natural resources.

6. Preservation of air quality and water supplies

Our air quality is degrading as a result of too many emissions, crowded cities and a severe lack of adequate green (trees, planting etc.) infrastructure in our urban districts. Preserving our air, while doing more to conserve, recycle and respect the value of water, would also go some way to improving city living conditions.

7. A future

At this moment in time, about 60% of our populations are living in cities — a figure that is set to grow and eventual reach 80%. So there will inevitably be more stress placed on our buildings and infrastructure, meaning we will be at increasing risk from hot micro-climates (thermal heat islands). However, the risk can be negated if we are able to meet the requirements set out in points one to six above. By working towards the goal of intelligent sustainable cities we stand a good chance of adapting to a much healthier and sustainable future.

Change is never easy. There will be huge challenges, the biggest being the renovation and decarbonising of our existing urban areas. But we can't avoid this and we can’t afford to play catch-up.

If we don’t manage to change, then temperature change will impact our lives — and soon. It will be a domino effect; more air pollution will mean more respiratory diseases resulting from increased urban heat-island effect which will result in a huge burden being placed on our health systems. And it’s not just the air we need to be concerned with. Additional global heat will mean seas rise rapidly, we will face biodiversity losses, significant water shortages and huge strain on our global infrastructures.

I argue that, only through the development of intelligent sustainable cities, relying on fresh skill-sets and greater innovation, alongside the technology we already have, and a much greater respect for the Earth, can we develop a culture and processes that collaborate with, rather than damage, the only one planet we have to live on.

I’ve already said that we are outstripping the Earth’s own ability to replenish its resources; we must learn one-planet living in order to have a sustainable future.

George Adams is engineering director of SPIE UK

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