Experts have suggested that the new citizen’s climate assembly of the United Kingdom is apparently not doing enough in examining the huge potentials and impacts of the construction process on the country’s emissions.
Having been created by six Commons select committees, the assembly is expected to see where the public stands on the best way the country can meet its 2050 net-zero target, in addition to providing relevant expert advice to the government.
Among other things, the assembly has examined zero-carbon heating, energy efficiency in the home. While the public is well-represented in the committee, the experts are not well represented. In fact, none of the 31 advisers on the committee specializes in the built environment. This is even more worrisome, considering the built environment’s importance to the UK’s carbon emissions menace.
Experts have also criticized the decision of the assembly to prioritize operational emissions over embodied and up-front carbon emissions, usually caused by construction and production. The decision, they believe, is not in the best interest of the country, considering that the planet has just 10 years to reduce greenhouse gas levels to the barest minimum.
In his words, Mark Farmer, the government’s champion for modern methods of construction (MMC) in housebuilding, termed this oversight by the assembly a ‘strange omission.’
“The built environment industry has such a huge impact you would have thought there would be some representation here,” he opined. “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 is the usual suspects from big business and think-tanks. But if you want to get things happening, you need practitioners from the industry.”
Speaking on the same issue, Joe Giddings, co-founder of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) described the absence of built environment advisers on the committee as ‘frustrating,’ while stating his fears about the construction turning into an environmental ‘albatross’ if things do not change for the better soon.
“The lack of conversation about embodied carbon is an oversight,” he added. “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 decarbonize. 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.”
In the same vein, the former chair of the RIBA sustainability group, Simon Sturgis, believes that the committee might be ‘missing a trick’ considering that embodied carbon can be reduced without cost. If this is adopted, up to 4% of the UK’s annual emissions can be prevented.
“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.”
In its defence, the Assembly, through its spokesperson, claimed it had covered “many aspects” of built environment emissions. This, according to him, include replacing concrete with timber for constructions. They also stated that the committee invited the Committee on Climate Change’s head of buildings, Jenny Hill, as an expert in the built environment.
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 Assembly is expected to meet for the last time on the weekend of March 20-22.
Other Opinions and Comments
“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.”
– Julie Hirigoyen, Chief Executive at UKGBC.
“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.”
– Alan Jones, RIBA President
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