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UK climate change assembly accused of neglecting construction

Climate Assembly UK
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The country’s new citizens’ climate assembly is failing to properly consider the massive impact of the construction process on the country’s emissions, experts have warned

The assembly has been established by six Commons select committees, with the aim of trying to understand public preferences on how the UK should meet its 2050 net zero target and advising the government on the results.

While the assembly – comprising a cross-section of the public – has considered matters including energy efficiency in the home and zero-carbon heating, architects and other experts have voiced alarm that not a single one of its 31 advisers is a specialist in the built environment, a sector estimated to generate up to half of the country’s annual carbon emissions.

They have also hit out at the assembly’s focus on operational rather than the embodied and up-front carbon emissions associated with production and construction, given the planet’s estimated 10-year window to radically reduce greenhouse gas levels.

Mark Farmer, the government’s champion for modern methods of construction (MMC) in housebuilding, called the assembly’s lack of built environment advisers a ‘strange omission’.

He said: The built environment industry has such a huge impact you would have thought there would be some representation here.

‘The entire construction sector sits under the government’s clean growth challenge strategy, so there’s been a lost opportunity here to ensure that the industry with one of the biggest environmental impacts is round the table.

‘When you look at the list of the assembly’s advisers, it’s the usual suspects from big business and think-tanks. But if you want to get things happening, you need practitioners from industry.’

Joe Giddings, co-founder of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), called the lack of built environment advisers ‘frustrating’ and said he worried that construction would become an environmental ‘albatross’ if its failings were not dealt with publicly.

‘The lack of conversation about embodied carbon is an oversight,’ he said. ‘Given the complexity of the issue, this was a really good opportunity to start to explain to the public how environmentally damaging the construction industry is.

‘According to the LETI Climate Emergency Design Guide, new construction accounts for about 10 per cent of our national emissions and the figure is increasing as other sectors decarbonise. If you take 2017 as an example, this 10 per cent amounts to 46 megatonnes of CO2.

‘Looking ahead, that figure is about 64 per cent of our annual carbon budget in 2050 (which is 71 megatonnes of CO2 according to Carbon Brief) so, if we don’t start to tackle this immediately, construction will become an albatross.’

And Simon Sturgis, the former chair of the RIBA sustainability group, suggested the committee was in danger of ‘missing a trick’ because embodied carbon can often be slashed without cost. He estimated that 3-4 per cent of the UK’s annual emissions could be saved in this way.

Reducing embodied carbon in construction can be done for free – it only requires knowledge

‘Reducing embodied carbon in construction can be done for free – it only requires knowledge,’ he said. Not all actions we’re taking towards net zero are themselves carbon-free so saving embodied carbon today is better.

‘A tonne of carbon saved today is obviously better than a tonne of carbon saved over the next 60 years because you get the benefit immediately rather than incrementally. Ultimately you need to make cuts today as well as making cuts into the future.’

A spokesperson for the Assembly said it had covered “many aspects” of built environment emissions, including discussion of using timber instead of concrete for construction projects. They also pointed out that one of the speakers Assembly members heard from was the Committee on Climate Change’s head of buildings, Jenny Hill.

They added: ‘As the Assembly’s time is restricted to four weekends, the Select Committees asked the Assembly to focus more on “in use” emissions – direct emissions from heating and transport which account for a large proportion of [built environment emissions]. Parliament specified that areas that are more immediately relatable to assembly members be prioritised; these are areas where people have the most experience.’

The final meeting of the Assembly will take place on the weekend of March 20-22.

Further comments 

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive at UKGBC ’It is very encouraging to see many of this country’s renowned climate experts taking part in [the Climate Assembly UK] project – we need all the expertise we can get in the face of the climate crisis and there is some impressive, pan-industry experience across these panels.

’It is important to highlight that the built environment is one of the more vulnerable sectors to the physical and financial risks from climate change. For that reason it would be positive to see greater representation of the built environment through the engagement of more sector-specific voices.’

Alan Jones, RIBA president ’Collaboration is critical if we are to tackle climate change and the Climate Assembly is an important part of that – I look forward to its recommendations.

’Until the government commits to post-occupancy energy performance targets for buildings however, the UK will seriously struggle to reduce its carbon footprint.

’Alongside making the case politically, the RIBA will continue to work closely with the Committee for Climate Change and the wider built environment sector, and encourage all RIBA Chartered Practices to sign up to our 2030 Climate Challenge.’

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Yasmin Shariff

    Having campaigned in government and sat on countless government committees since the 1996 Habitat 2 Conference I am sad to say that the UK Government have never taken the construction industry seriously. The consequences are catastrophic for the leaky poorly built structures that many of the poor and elderly live in. It is shameful that people in this country have to choose between heating and eating. Decisions on these government committees are made mostly by the bird and bee brigade who have little or no professional knowledge of the built environment. Meanwhile the profession is being unskilled and reduced to external decorators. We can build new housing that requires no heating, we can upgrade existing structures. It is not difficult when you know how. Seeing money being poured into well meaning but clueless initiatives is painful.

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