Meeting climate change targets through the built environment

The built environment sector accounts for almost 40 per cent of global emissions. What can our industry do to mitigate this and meet the ambitious climate change targets set by the Paris Agreement?

Author: Owen Hewlett

05 June 2020

The rejection of Heathrow's third runway points to a critical new factor to consider in terms of planning and procurement decisions in the built environment – the need to conform to the science-based goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement.

To address this, we must be able to answer the deceptively simple question: is this development in line with the science of climate change? To illustrate this challenge ask yourself whether the building in which you're reading this article or the development you're working on right now, is in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

Once you consider the matter further more difficult questions arise. Does a high energy performance BREEAM outstanding or LEED platinum rating mean a development is in line with science? Or is it just less bad for the climate than those with lower ratings? If you carry out the development, will it mean that the companies involved exceed their emissions budget – or will the local authority exceed theirs? Is the social and economic value of a new development worth spending our limited remaining emissions?

Without wishing to add to the debate around the decision to reject a third runway at Heathrow, it appears to have largely been taken on the basis that flying is fundamentally not in line with the Paris Agreement goals. This may seem obvious in the context of aviation's contribution to climate change, but may not be so straightforward when considering the need for built environment developments in other sectors.

In other words, we must get to a place where making intelligent, science-based, contextually appropriate, socially valuable planning and procurement decisions is the norm.

"Making intelligent, science-based, contextually appropriate, socially valuable planning and procurement decisions must become the norm"

These decisions must consider the emissions that are embodied in a building, for example those that are associated with the production of concrete or steel. They must also consider in-use – energy and heat, for example – and end-of-life emissions such as those involved in demolition and recycling. Regulation must also ensure that the various stakeholders in the value chain are held accountable for their contribution to climate change.

According to the World Green Building Council, the built environment sector accounts for 39 per cent of global emissions. With the UK due to host the next climate negotiations (COP26) – these were originally due to take place in November this year but have been postponed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic – and with RICS taking a leading role in the global conversation on the climate emergency in the built environment, now is the window of opportunity to develop principles and guidance that allows for strong decision-making.

What does the science say?

The Paris Agreement is built on a clear, scientific foundation. This science is provided by the independent, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose milestone Special Report 15: Global warming of 1.5°C provided the key basis for decision making.

Global temperatures are, on average, approximately 1.1 - 1.2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. This increase is anthropogenic, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere. The effect of this trapped energy is multitudinous and exponentially increasing. Environmental and social impacts are already being realised but are estimated to become critical and irreversible should average temperatures reach a 1.5°C warming scenario – in other words, emissions that cause temperatures to increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The IPCC report states that avoiding this scenario requires the locking in of a 45 per cent reduction in emissions from current levels by 2030 at the latest, going on to achieve global net zero – by balancing with sequestration of emissions – by 2050 at the latest, with further decarbonisation beyond that.

At present the total pledged reductions associated with country commitments to the Paris Agreement would realise a temperature increase of between 3°C and 4°C, more than double the point of no return set out by the IPCC.

Although the Paris Agreement offers hope, it should be tempered by the current lack of ambition among the parties, or countries, to the agreement. It is not legally binding and relies on transparency and peer pressure for enforcement. At a national level, governments should set ambitious policies to regulate emissions, while supporting and pressuring peers to do better. Climate finance support is ideally targeted at increasing the ambition of regulation and policy and improving supply chain emissions.

Regardless of the negotiations and regulation, however, it falls to all of us as individuals, employees, companies and citizens of the cities and locales where we live and work, to ensure change is being driven at non-state level. While it is tempting to externalise the problem by stating the government should take care of it, big companies should be doing more, or 'we'll do it when our competitors do it' – the problem is best tackled when we take collective responsibility.

"It falls to all of us as individuals, employees, companies and citizens to ensure change is being driven at non-state level"

One such approach that is specifically targeting companies is the Science Based Targets Initiative. Their guidance and methodology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions provides a platform for companies to set credible direct and indirect emissions reduction targets that are in line with science. Set up as a collaboration between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Resources Institute, UN Global Compact and CDP, the initiative's theory is that if all companies reduce their own emissions, then globally we will achieve the goals set out by the IPCC.

There are promising signs: the initiative has over 800 pledges and has started work on detailed sectoral guidance that builds net-zero requirements into the methodology. But a quick glance shows that, with the exception of Landsec and Kingspan, companies primarily involved in construction and infrastructure, as well as cities and local authorities, are absent.

Experience in other sectors shows that if demand to meet these initiatives is driven by larger, influential companies, then those in the supply chain will follow. For example, large, consumer-facing agri-commodity buyers such as Mars, Danone and others have set themselves ambitious climate targets that can only be achieved if procurement targets suppliers who conform. This leads to large agri-commodity suppliers setting equally ambitious targets, working with their buyers to drive compliance both upstream and downstream.

Construction emissions

So, what should our sector be doing? We must reduce our emissions – embodied, in-use and end-of-life – within our sectoral boundaries, and in line with science. We should do this in the context of social value to ensure our decision making is contextually appropriate.

The surveying skillset is well suited to this task. Many project managers and quantity surveyors will have been commissioned to value engineer the cost of a development within acceptable parameters, while maintaining the essential quality components. Dealing with the climate emergency requires a similar professional skillset and standard to understand the emissions budget and what must be reduced to meet science-based targets.

Science-based decision making across the RIBA Plan of Work stages

The role of the surveyor and the nature of decision making will evolve as the project cycle unfolds. Quantity surveyors and project managers can influence project decisions to achieve sustainable outcomes in various ways at different stages of a project. The RIBA stages provide a structure to think about the application of science-based decision making. 

Stage 0 – Strategic definition. It is essential to embed the ambition to create a science-based development. By embedding this early, emissions become a factor in all future decision making. This works very well when the client has a published science-based target and can link its development work directly to this ambition.

Stage 1 – Preparation and briefing. In setting out the objectives of the project, surveyors can assist by supplementing the cost appraisals with emissions appraisals – embodied, in-use and end-of-life.

Stages 2 to 4 – Design. The surveyor’s role in producing and managing cost plans, work programmes and risk is uniquely suited to ensuring that emissions remain a core consideration. This requires the client and team to be on board with the initial ambition to be science-based and to ensure this genuinely influences decisions. It is also a great opportunity to embed emissions reporting in procurement, requiring contractors to submit accurate footprints of supply and construction and to incorporate accountability mechanisms linked to payment. Ideally, contractors committed to science-based targets should be given an advantage.

Stage 5 – Manufacturing and construction. The main influence on emissions at this stage relates to building contractors’ selection of materials. This is obviously heavily influenced by the design and procurement in previous stages and hence the main role of the surveyor here is to hold the construction team to account for the design principles regarding emissions. It’s also good practice to report and monitor site-based emissions from vehicles, offices, and commuting.

Stage 6 – Handover. At this point the majority of emissions associated with a development have either happened or are locked in by the design. Handover is therefore an opportunity to ensure that this is properly recorded and that documents brief all future building users on how to operate it according to the science-based principles set out in the earlier stages. This is a great way to inform tenants and users how to report the building’s emissions in their own science-based targets, thus providing both consistency and co-accountability.

Stage 7 – Use. This is the most mature stage in terms of emissions reporting, based on greater accuracy and understanding of energy use and facilities management. It is partly driven by the nature of working on a project – where accountability tends to cease after handover – and the ongoing operation of a building.

Companies should be encouraged to set strong science-based targets that include all direct and indirect emissions. All new developments, leases, purchases procurement and contracts should be designed with an emissions budget. From that foundation we can robustly determine whether a development adheres to the goals set by climate science.

For local authorities the applicability of the science is the same: local plans should establish an emissions budget, and these emissions should reduce in line with the science-based targets through to at least 2050. To limit the need for arbitrary planning decisions, consideration should be given as to how each new development impacts the plan.

Local authorities could also operate flexibility mechanisms, building on existing tools such as S106 agreements, also known as developer contributions. For example, there may be a local plan for a school building or social housing that uses the remaining emissions budget, but ultimately stays inside the required scientific parameters by 2050. A commercial developer seeking to develop something not accounted for within the plan could be asked to compensate locally – retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, for example – to maintain the scientific integrity of the local plan.

One approach many see as a potential solution is offsetting, that is, the practice of compensating your emissions with reductions achieved beyond the business-as-usual projects. Offsetting is a common practice, but in the context of science-based targets and the Paris Agreement – which excludes offsetting – it is essential we think about this opportunity appropriately.

In short, offsetting should be in addition to, never instead, of reducing in-boundary – that is the direct and indirect emissions associated with operations of a company. Otherwise, according to science, we would not reduce emissions far enough and would discourage companies from taking hard, business-change decisions that will be needed to stay within a 1.5°C scenario.

It can be argued, however, that offsetting beyond science-based targets has an additional, impactful benefit on overall global decarbonisation. Elements of offsetting practice, such as the purchase of carbon credits could be used by local authorities to enable localised compensation schemes in order to meet the science-led targets of local plans. This should not be considered as offsetting in the context of the local plan, however, since the reductions would be inside the operating boundary of the local authority and therefore consistent with a science-based target approach.

A surveyor's role

Earlier I asked whether the building you're in right now is in line with science. The reality is, it's difficult to know, but it's fair to assume the worst in most cases.

Assessment approaches that can determine scientific conformity on a building-by-building and development-by-development basis would be valuable. What would be missing, however, is the contextual analysis of both the value chain and local authority plans. In other words, it may be a good building on a standalone basis but not so good in context with surrounding infrastructure.

That said, being able to assess an individual development would still be a step forward and a useful tool in responding to the climate emergency. It is also feasible that the basic science-based targets method could be adapted to an individual development boundary that would include embodied, in-use and end-of-life emissions. This would then allow labels such as BREEAM, LEED and energy performance assessments to move to clear, non-arbitrary climate assessments and apply their social value criteria to more meaningful decision making.

In a hierarchy of assessment and decision making, an ideal world would be a development where all participants are working towards science-based targets and local authorities can make an intelligent decision about the associated impact on any local plan. In the absence of this, generic assessments of social value coupled with a stand-alone, science-based assessment of developments can still be a powerful tool.

The starting point in all of this for anybody is to ask yourself another question: is your own lifestyle in line with climate science? If not, try to understand the science and what you can do on an individual level – the WWF Footprint Calculator, for example, is a good place to start. Then as project managers and quantity surveyors, start lobbying your employers, clients and local authorities to do more. As top-down regulation meets your efforts from the other direction, a collective solution can be created.

Owen Hewlett is chief technical officer at The Gold Standard

Related competencies include: Sustainability

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