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Coronavirus gives us a glimpse of a healthier, decarbonised future

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The ‘silver lining’ consequences of Covid-19 should motivate architects to design a more sustainable world, says Sheppard Robson’s Alison O’Reilly

Portrait of alison o'reilly, head of sustainability at sheppard robson

Over the past weeks I’ve read countless articles celebrating some of the effects on the environment of the coronavirus pandemic: clean canals in Venice, less light pollution in the night sky, and cleaner air quality. Since lockdown, the world has experienced a noticeable reduction in carbon emissions, giving us a glimpse of what a cleaner and healthier planet might look like.

However, we can’t let these ‘silver linings’ distract us from the reality of the situation—not only did these achievements come at catastrophic human cost, they are fleeting, at best.

This temporary downturn in emissions is not a new phenomenon; in fact, we’ve seen it relatively recently: in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis carbon emissions fell, but this was short-lived, and carbon levels rebounded dramatically during recovery. In our own industry, we saw environmentally progressive codes and policies, such as the Code for Sustainable Home, lose traction, eventually being scrapped in order to lessen housing regulations.

Let’s be clear: this pandemic is not how we will decarbonise the economy. We need to be aware of the challenge ahead: to recover economically without sacrificing the climate, endeavouring to decarbonise in a way that is truly sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically. As designers of the built environment, we need to be aware of the implications for our industry, and not lose sight of our commitments to sustainability in such a turbulent time.

The last year has seen built environment professionals rally together around an emerging collective identity, driven by initiatives such as Architects Declare, to position sustainability centrally in our professional obligations. At the same time, the current pandemic has turned our industry on its head in what felt like an instant, shattering our preconceived notions about the working patterns that we took as fact.

What we’re experiencing indicates that a more significant recalibration of values is on our horizon. We are witnessing a new-found openness in an industry that is often criticised as being too slow or unwilling to adapt. The cracks that are breaking through the status quo could pave the way for even bigger, more impactful changes, but only if the resulting recalibration of values is aligned with climate action.

To harness the moment and effect meaningful change, our first duty is to stay loyal to our commitments—as signatories to the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign, the RIBA Climate Challenge, or otherwise. In our own practice, we have taken this as an opportunity to redouble our commitments—formally launching our Sustainability and Innovation Charter.

While individual practices can do their part to promote sustainability, lasting, structural change requires legislation and regulation. Others, including the UN, have already outlined how this can be achieved by incentivising greener decisions through economic recovery packages.

Recent policies enacted since the onset of Covid-19 offer a glimmer of hope, including Milan’s current initiative to turn roads into cycle paths. Practices in the UK can help to push similar policies forward by dedicating time for staff to educate, organise, and lobby for climate action.

Demanding a healthy and resilient future for people and planet alike has never had a more receptive audience and the last year has seen a sweeping global surge in both the awareness and impetus to act on climate change. Let’s use this moment, not only to envision a sustainable future, but to make it happen.

We have already seen what we can accomplish when architects mobilise – from Architects Declare, to opposing the proposed ban on CLT, to using their resources to help fight Covid-19. We can harness this moment, rather than resting on the laurels of unearned, temporary climate respite, to move beyond ‘back to normal’ and realise the new opportunities made possible in times of crisis. The climate crisis is more urgent than ever. Even in the face of multiple crises, we must act now to harness society’s bourgeoning recalibration of social and environmental values to fight for climate action.

Alison O’Reilly is head of sustainability at Sheppard Robson

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Readers' comments (1)

  • To be perfectly cynical (and nit-picking), perhaps the burgeoning recalibration of social and environmental values could start with national legislation to ban parking on pavements - currently only an offence in London, in England, but last year prohibited throughout Scotland.

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