Building a future without fossil fuels

Speaker after speaker at last month’s CIBSE National Conference [March 2006] stressed that global warming is a reality, illustrated by detailed figures on the relentless build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, glaciers receding, polar ice caps melting and sea levels rising. If we have been complacent hitherto, it would be even more dangerous to become bored at being constantly reminded of the threats to mankind. We all know by now that massively reducing our use of fossil fuels is the key to preventing the further growth of carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere and, hopefully, reducing them. If that is not sufficient motivation, the facts that Britain became a net importer of natural gas during the winter of 2004 and that North Sea oil will be exhausted by 2010 must spur us on to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The motivation doesn’t matter. The crucial thing is to reduce those carbon emissions. And the great news for everyone involved in building-services engineering is that they have the opportunity to make a contribution. As presentations at the CIBSE National Conference last month made clear, the Government target of a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 need be no great challenge for the built environment. Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, for example, expects to meet that target by the end of this decade — 40 years early, and then continue to reduce carbon emissions. Barnsley’s efforts to reduce energy consumption — the concern at that time — began in 1986 and achieved a 20% cut in just five years. There must still be plenty of organisations out there that have not fully exploited the potential of building- and energy-management systems, controls, radiant heating instead of convective and heat exchangers in ventilation systems. Expensive, perhaps, but perfectly possible, is to design new buildings with zero carbon emissions over a year as a whole. While it may not yet be practicable to take the ideas incorporated into a new classroom in Devon into the day-to-day mainstream, who is to say when the reducing cost of these technologies makes their use viable or environmental issues demand their use? The final piece in the jigsaw is to establish a body of people with the skills and expertise to assess buildings for their carbon emissions. Yet again, CIBSE has taken the initiative with the setting up of a low-carbon consultants register. This vision is that their expertise will be made available at the beginning of the construction chain and to assess buildings for the building energy performance certification required by the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Far from being powerless in the face of the threat of climate change, building-services engineers have a huge amount to offer.
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