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Why we are calling on the RIBA to declare a climate emergency

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Architects Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn explain why the institute needs to champion collective action from architects to fight global warming

In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit comments that ‘What lies ahead seems unlikely; when it becomes the past, it seems inevitable’. Three weeks ago, it would have seemed unlikely that our mainstream political parties would make any bold moves on climate change; now, thanks to the growing wave of school protests inspired by Greta Thunberg and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, it seems inconceivable that they won’t.

The declaration of a climate emergency by the UK Parliament last week follows more than 60 UK local councils which have declared a climate emergency since the publication of the IPCC report in October 2018. Even though councils are often associated with cautious bureaucracy, many have set bold target dates for achieving zero carbon.

We will only bring about the necessary paradigm shift if the RIBA mobilises itself explicitly to champion collective action from architects

In many cases the process involves back-casting from the end date to work out what detailed policies will be required to meet the target. They have demonstrated the courage to state what is necessary and then worry about how to achieve it. The opposite approach, which has been characteristic of many institutions over the last twenty years, is to look at the status quo and offer proposals for incremental improvements or set targets so far into the future that it effectively excuses them from any meaningful action in the present. It is clear that the latter approach has failed to address the scale of the challenges that we now face.

Many architects could point out that they are already doing everything they can in pushing for high LEED or BREEAM standards on all their projects and lobbying individually for positive change. But the fact is that our efforts on sustainability to date have not been anywhere near enough to avert the impending twin crises of climate breakdown and mass species extinction.

The RIBA’s recent Ethics and Sustainable Development report goes some way to addressing the issue but we need to go further, and quicker. We will only bring about the necessary paradigm shift in our sector if the RIBA mobilises itself explicitly to champion collective action from architects, to catalyse and reinforce action from other institutions in the construction industry, to persuade clients to raise their own game and, crucially, to pressurise government into playing their part with new legislation and resources.

So why are we as a profession not taking more radical action? Architects have often argued (with some justification) that they can’t do much to drive higher standards of environmental design if the client doesn’t want it or the planners won’t accept it. But when councils and Parliament are prepared to demonstrate leadership, it is vital that we support them to the maximum extent of our own agency. That is why we have asked the RIBA to declare a climate emergency.

Our request followed the format that has been widely used by District Councils. We requested the following:

  1. Declare a climate emergency, stating what the IPCC Special Report has predicted for the 1.5°C and 2°C scenarios
  2. State that the RIBA requires the government to immediately reinstate zero carbon as a standard for all new buildings and major refurbishments
  3. Name a target date for when the UK needs to achieve zero carbon and confirm the profession’s willingness to work towards this
  4. Immediately establish a working group to identify the detailed actions that we as a profession need to take and, very importantly, who else we need to bring into the discussions (clients, funders, etc) to deliver on what is required

Encouragingly, the RIBA president responded quickly and confirmed that he will prepare a paper for RIBA Council ‘to debate and hopefully agree’. We hope that other institutions and cross-sector organisations will follow suit.

Steve Tompkins is a director of Haworth Tompkins; Michael Pawlyn is founder of architecture practice Exploration

Image: Brian Minkoff / Shutterstock.com

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • No comment? No comment! Come on team, HELP SAVE THE WORLD??

    Quite frankly Steve and Michael, we don’t give a damn, unless you make us an offer we can’t refuse? So how about £1trilllion/year for the next ten years via Green Bonds? Final offer. As long as you use it wisely? Contact me. via the AJ to find out more.

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  • Often people don't comment because they agree. I at least, am one of those.

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  • or because they have already given up on the RIBA being able to deliver anything relevant to contemporary practice

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