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Using more renewable energy won't lead to a drop in living standards

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Listen to the experts, says Rory Olcayto. We don’t have to sacrifice living standards to mitigate climate change

It can be hard to convince others why a building should look a certain way, how big or small it should be, how important the section is to the way people move through it, or how beautiful concrete can be if it’s handled with care and attention. But if being an architect is frustrating, imagine being a climate change expert: heckled by politicians more concerned with the Nimby vote than renewable energy, dismissed by grunting petrolheads.

Having dedicated your life to scientific research, imagine arriving at the conclusion, along with thousands of other scientists who share your expertise that, unless there is ‘major institutional and technological change’ in energy provision, serious environmental, social and economic problems will ensue, but no one took you seriously. Imagine that, unless your advice were heeded, we would fail to limit the increase in global mean temperature to two Celsius degrees above pre-industrial levels, which experts say is a threshold too dangerous to cross. It puts into perspective the problems architects face.

Why does anyone think they know better than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Is it a symptom of a trend to dismiss professional judgment across the board? Studying detailed environmental information is what its 1,250 scientists do for a living. They don’t scour the web for crank blogs to back up their findings. They don’t get their facts from Jeremy Clarkson’s newspaper column. For its latest document, Mitigation of Climate Change, published this week, the panel assessed about 1,200 scenarios from a mass of scientific literature generated by 31 teams around the world to explore the ‘economic, technological and institutional prerequisites’ that would help mitigate against global mean temperature rises. The report reaffirms what most architects seem willing to believe: that global emissions of greenhouse gases have risen to unprecedented levels despite the policies already in place to reduce them. In fact, emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades.

The panel’s report offers some good news: catastrophic climate change can be averted without sacrificing living standards. Furthermore, the shift we need to make towards renewables is much more affordable than we had previously thought. It even says that exploitation of gas - including the reserves drawn from fracking - can be used to smooth the transition to clean energy.

Adopting renewable energy programmes, the report states, would slow annual global economic growth (typically 1.3-3 per cent) by just 0.06 per cent, but it also warned that costs will grow, the longer we take to make the change. Given that most of the arguments put forward by those opposed to renewable energies are rooted in fears associated with a drop in living standards, this report should help block off that line of attack.

Digital service

It will be two weeks before we publish another print edition of the AJ so we’ve doubled up this week to land a bumper Easter special on your doormat, postal service permitting, in time for Good Friday. Still, there are a number of other ways you can enjoy all the articles and news we’ve packed into this special edition. For example our website, free to subscribers, has all this plus extra content unavailable in print. Again, for subscribers, there are free editions of the AJ on iPad and iPhone to download, and you can send us feedback whenever you like on Twitter or LinkedIn.

We hope you do: this week we’ve got the best writers in the business - Ellis Woodman, Rowan Moore, Paul Finch, Simon Thurley - on subjects that matter: skyscrapers, RIBA’s Israel motion, and the great cathedrals of England. Happy Easter!


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