Time to reach for net zero

 SPIE, George Adams, net zero, sustainability
George Adams

George Adams says we need collaboration to achieve the net zero emissions target – and that our industry needs to lead the way in making big changes.

The concept of net zero has recently captured the attention of influential organisations in the construction and engineering sectors who view it as an urgent action point. They have reached out to the industry to try to define how to approach this huge challenge.

Just last month, the government took action to set out measures designed to go further and faster to tackle climate change. In response to the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recommendations, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the government proposed the following actions for businesses operating in the built environment:

• To dramatically improve commercial buildings in the private rented sector, including a consultation on plans to improve the energy performance of rented commercial buildings

• To start a consultation in 2020 on introducing mandatory in-use energy performance ratings for business buildings

• To launch a consultation on proposals to make it simpler for large-scale energy storage facilities to obtain planning permission

• To endorse the recommendations of the Energy Data Taskforce, unlocking the potential of data sharing across the energy system to support decarbonisation and reduce consumer bill

But are these proposals enough to make any headway in the ongoing battle against climate change? Indeed, are they even tackling the crux of the issue preventing these industries from becoming more environmentally friendly?

As scientists are now advising that humanity needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 7.2% per year for the next 10 years, it would seem not. These new guidelines will only make a tiny dent in overall emission reduction.

With 40% of emissions currently deriving from the built environment, it is therefore absolutely right that the government is putting plans in place to try and change buildings’ energy use. However, these latest recommendations fail to do three key things: to be upfront about the real barriers to change; to spell out the next steps that businesses have carry out to reach their emissions reductions; and to be clear with societies about what they should also do.

There is the additional problem of how to deal with the fossil fuel economy and its close relationship with our financial markets, which hasn’t been given any airtime. For example, organisations working in the fossil fuel industry get huge international support, meaning they are not having to pay their greenhouse gas emissions. The IMF calculated that this adds up to $5.2 trillion globally.

Without properly working out the barriers to achieving net zero, the solutions proposed will lack impact and speed. There’s been too much talk and prevarication. It is imperative that industry identifies the actions it can take now and how it can foster collaboration to achieve significant environmental benefits.

Given that 80% of existing buildings will still be in use when the net zero deadline hits, it is crucial that engineering and construction companies work with government and clients to switch entire cities to using renewable energy alone to keep them running. The industry needs to think more holistically, linking sustainability, safety, recycling to save resources and improve wellbeing as a symbiotic group of priorities.

 SPIE, George Adams, net zero, sustainability

The many industry bodies (such as Engineering Council UK, ICE, Royal Society of Chartered Surveyors) in general, act separately because of a largely fragmented industry and we need to see greater collaboration between them all. With correct leadership it would also be possible to measure how successful any new legislation is performing and amend as required. I believe The Construction Industry Council is best placed for being the vehicle for change as it represents the most people in the industry and seems most likely to create that common vision and communication.

However, for this to be realised, a significant shift is needed in the mindset of the professional institutes who currently act alone towards their sustainability goals.

Once an organisation is nominated as the lead for change, it must set about creating a common vision for improving performance levels of existing and future buildings. To make any headway the industry must accelerate change in how the industry behaves.

Ingrained and outdated procurement processes must be disbanded in favour of more forward-thinking procedures with sustainability at their heart. For example, businesses should cease working with any companies that don’t meet measurable and responsible sustainability goals.

Another example of a strategy that could help meet net zero would be to improve the performance levels of existing and new buildings. To do so, the latest technologies that can transform the efficiencies of our buildings must be taken advantage of. For example, there are new flooring solutions that create electricity when you walk on them.

Only by embracing these types of technology can we achieve the required targets within the limited timeframe.

We also need a concerted effort by all parties to work together to attract more young people with the right mindset into the industry to help drive that change. The younger cohort is the group with sustainability as a priority when it comes to their employer. So, if engineering companies can demonstrate that they are serious about improving the sustainability of their organisation, they will not only attract the right talent, but those people who are hired will be the ones encouraging sustainability best practice.

Ultimately, phasing out dependency on fossil fuels in infrastructure and the built environment is a huge challenge. To accelerate it, we need governments to phase out investments in fossil fuels and increase the rate of investing in sustainable energy sources and distribution methods. They also need to send out a message of proactivity. We simply don’t have time to wait for legislation to force businesses to act, it is now time for the built environment to assume responsibility itself and transform the sector.

George Adams is Energy & Engineering director at SPIE UK

Picture credit: Shutterstock.com/Poptika 

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