Let’s halt the drift towards climate chaos

Dave Hampton
New buildings can be zero carbon within five years — Dave Hampton.
DAVE HAMPTON argues that the UK needs to be very much more positive in its attitude to reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from buildings. Whatever new resolve was made or broken by Government ministers and officials on New Year’s Day, real progress on measures to deliver actual reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions in the built environment remains glacially slow — although at the rate glaciers are melting today, this metaphor has lost impact! The bleakest cliché of 2005 was, ‘If we are travelling aboard a Titanic, let’s travel first class.’ The phrase serves to remind us of the iceberg we are drifting towards, with elected captains and officials frozen at the wheel. We witness random bursts of departmental engines at full throttle forward and full reverse, but there appears no linkage to the tiller. It is a course correction we need. We have had clear warning that our fossil-fuel bonfire is unleashing climate catastrophe. Like the Titanic, we are on collision course. Horrendous consequence is now imminent. Many intelligent and independent commentators now anticipate Armageddon — some say in just two decades. But instead of acting urgently, we fiddle away, using our noise to drown out the calls from the crow’s-nest. In 2006 we need to call upon every man, woman and child to leave the deckchairs alone, and to pull hard and steady on the tiller, until, at last, the Titanic responds. Will we do this? Will HMG help? Will business? Will the Chartered Institute of Building? Will each of us? Yes. We all must. Can we do it? Yes we can. The European Commission published the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) in January 2003. Amongst other things, it required the simple but urgent task of giving UK buildings labels, so that buyers, renters and the public can spot the rough difference between ‘gas guzzlers’ and the ‘carbon lite’. The EPBD was supposed to have been ‘transposed’ into UK law before 4 January 2006. In 2003-04 ODPM had meetings, did research, and in July 2004 published a consultation paper on the subject. At that time, ODPM’s thinking was well in advance of most European countries, several of which looked to us for continued leadership. What an opportunity! But instead, the ODPM ship became icebound — and now the EC has started legal proceedings against us for failing to explain why the UK has not implemented European policy. If market forces and market-informed carbon reduction is the current game, it is crystal clear that no progress can be made until carbon-dioxide performance is made visible — whether from cars, buildings, companies or people. We don’t know how we are doing! We are not even flying blind, but drifting in the dark. If that wasn’t enough, the final version of the Code for Sustainable Homes is seriously late, which also became so seriously diluted that the WWF resigned from the steering group. And a code for sustainable non-domestic buildings seems to have been abandoned altogether. There is an agonising lack of urgency. Sleeping ostriches move faster. Officials are running fast, and those directing them look serious? But is there any will to change? What is needed? The first thing is popular acknowledgement that change is not only desirable but inevitable and necessary. Better still, we must accept that change is needed for us to continue to prosper. We need to internally accept and endorse the unarguable context of the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ framework for all future progress. We need to make ourselves ultra carbon conscious in all we do. Low-carbon thinking has to become the central strategic objective for everything we do — locally and globally. Other matters can wait. New buildings must vanish as a future problem; they can be made zero carbon within five years. As for the existing building stock, a 25% reduction in carbon emissions every five years is both possible and necessary. No one is saying it will be easy. But it is essential — for species survival. Do not respond that with emissions increasing North America, China and India it does not matter what the UK does. We still exercise some cultural leadership. If we show it can be done, others will follow. If we do not, why should they? The hugely exciting truth is that we are faced with a canyon to jump, some rapids to shoot and a mountain to scale. Planes cannot take off at half-throttle. Canyons cannot be cleared in two jumps. Rapid change is the only way to face this. A growing alliance of leading industry bodies, including the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF), Edge and the Association for Environment Conscious Building, along with many other bodies such as Construction Industry Council, Chartered Institute of Building, Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers and Royal Institute of British Architects are all united calling for joined up action. We need rapid growth in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. (Growth is so fashionable, so we can keep it, and apply it to growing tonnage reduction!) The low-carbon economy beckons us; we carry on ignoring it at our peril — economic peril and life peril. We can do our bit, but for us to really rise to the challenge, Government leadership is needed — leadership by example, in its own buildings and by its own procurement. Only zero-carbon schools, please. Leadership by clear support for measures to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions — and so close the energy gap from the demand side, plugging the leaks in the bath, not pouring in more energy. Members of professional institutions can support this groundswell. It is unacceptable that the public is kept in the dark about which buildings emit thousands of tonnes of invisible carbon dioxide a year, and which don’t! Only weasels would squander our future by debating the meaning of the words, while the planet burns. Actually, weasels are much better than that, I am sure. Dave Hampton is The Carbon Coach with Carbon Coach Ltd, 9 Hyde Green, Marlow, Bucks SL7 1QL. www.carboncoach.com
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