Green buildings on the BBC: Is the built environment about to have its 'Blue Planet' moment?

The aftermath of BBC's Blue Planet 2 series sparked an unprecedented public outcry against single-use plastics, where businesses were firmly in the crosshairs. The nature document skirted around the issues of plastic waste in the ocean, but even just a fleeting lock at its impact sparked global change.

The series will run in Autumn 2020

The series will run in Autumn 2020

The so-called “Blue Planet effect” led to a 53% decline in single-use plastic use amongst consumers in 12 months following the renowned BBC documentary series and even as climate change and the coronavirus rocket up the political and media agendas, plastics is still very much a focal point for consumers, governments and business alike.

While plastics has opened the door for wider conversations on the environmental impacts of production, it hasn’t necessarily translated to heightened public awareness on carbon-intensive industries. While “flight shaming” is growing in prominence, it has still been difficult to translate the risks of carbon-intensive practices into a way that can visibly catch the attention of the wider public.

Take the built environment for example. As well as accounting for nearly 40% of global emissions, the built environment is expected to double the global building stock by 2060 as the world’s population approaches 10 billion. It is an extremely resource-intensive sector and the debate still rages as to how healthy the buildings we work and live in are for us. However, there is little in the way of public outcry as to how this sector is operating.

So, what would happen if the built environment tried to create its own “Blue Planet effect”, one that transformed public understanding as to how the sector can transform its operating model to one that promotes healthy and sustainable infrastructure.

That is exactly what the World Green Building Council (World GBC) is trying to find out.

The Council has announced a new partnership with the BBC’s creative studio StoryWorks to deliver a landmark film series. The aim of the series is to showcase ways in which built environment businesses are innovating approaches to design and construction in order to lessen the sector’s impact on the planet, while improving the health and wellbeing for citizens across the globe.

“People are listening to messages, but readers are reading less, and tweets have shortened how we communicate. But the power of image and the power of purpose is what is going to connect the dots in people’s minds and hearts,” the World GBC’s chief executive Christina Gamboa explains to edie as to why the Council has chosen this format to engage a wider audience.

“We’re innovating the language, and turning rhetoric into action. We need to demonstrate how health and sustainability can change the way we live and as we can take those stories and scale them up in a way that inspires others to act. We can really take this forward in a way that is meaningful and really changes the trajectory of sustainable living and infrastructure.”

The series is set to launch in Autumn 2020 as part of a multi-channel campaign – including the BBC website - and it remains unclear as to whether the global population will still be stuck indoors and in front of screens in order to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

At its very basic level, the partnership aims to create a “greater comprehension of sustainable buildings from a wider audience,” but the World GBC envisions a much broader impact in the long-term.

As mentioned, the limited minutes that focused on plastics in Blue Planet sparked a societal ripple effect that saw consumers demand change from both corporates and governments alike. While it is much easier to switch from single-use to reusable than it is to examine and act on the carbon impact of a building, Gamboa does believe that the new film series will create a heightened sense of understanding that will then put renewed pressure on governments and developers to focus on green construction.

The UK Government, for example, axed some notably ambitious zero-carbon homes legislation a few years ago and is still outlining a Future Homes Standard (FHS) that will be introduced in 2025 to create “world-leading energy efficiency standards”.

In what has been labelled as a “year of climate action” by the UK Government, Gamboa is keen for policymakers to focus on the built environment and believes a “Blue Planet moment” could help shape future discussions.

“We hope that this will enable focus on the ‘climate decade’ we’re all looking at and tap into COP26 and into the power of global national governments so that they can announce visionary regulation to give the right signals to the industry. It is about creating short-term ambition loops through individual stories.

“We want to highlight the efforts being made on low-carbon materials, healthy buildings and we want green construction sites and a future fleet of renewably powered buildings. It’s a vision and I hope this is our ‘Blue Planet moment’ and we continue to make great strides in the built environment.”

As for the BBC, the media giant is hoping that the series expands the understanding of the impact that the built environment has in transitioning the economy to a resilient and low-carbon future.

The aim, the organisation says, is to bring innovative projects from across the globe to a global audience through mini-documentary style films that form part of an integrated digital campaign orchestrated by BBC Global News.

BBC Global News told edie: “We’re excited to embark on the production of a powerful series that will show what buildings are really made of, and why the way in which we use and re-use buildings have such an impact on the environment and the health of society.

“Buildings have a profound effect on the quality of people’s lives and the aim is to put people at the heart of the stories we tell, showing how the ways in which we can design, construct and operate buildings can improve our health, and the health of our environment.”

Cutting through complexity

Translating sustainability into a communications package that is easily understood is no easy task, and for the built environment it becomes even more complex.

WorldGBC has issued a report outlining how companies in the sector can focus on both operational and embodied carbon to reach net-zero emission buildings by 2050. The report notes that operational emissions (from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings) account for 28% of the built environment sector’s 39% contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 11% derives from embodied carbon emissions found in the material and construction processes across a building’s entire lifecycle.

Before that, and in line with the targets of the Paris Agreement, the WorldGBC launched a net-zero commitment, setting a 2050 deadline for the transformation of the sector. Since the launch, research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has outlined the necessity of limiting global warming to 1.5C in the same timeframe.

Embodied carbon, net-zero, 1.5C global warming limits – all of these are technical terminology understood by sustainability professionals, but translating it in a way that so that is both universally understood and sparks the desire for action will be key to the success of this collaboration.

“The idea is to translate the language,” Gamboa says. “We’re focused on breaking down the barriers of the terminology and explaining it in a succinct way that can be understood across industries. Audiences will understand the carbon and health issues and if we break down the value into smaller stories, we will be able to communicate in a different way.”

The reason that the “Blue Planet effect” was so profound was that it was visible and measurable. Single-use plastic use has fallen dramatically, and retailers and product manufacturers have turned to other materials and business models to appease consumer demands. It also became a financial imperative to act, meaning that many businesses poured money into marketing strategies around the recyclability of their products.

Measurement for this project is much harder to calculate. Infrastructure projects and construction timelines span years in the design phase and then decades in their use, so green an existing building stock and integrating green practices into new-builds requires much longer timeframes.

The World GBC is still planning on measuring engagement, however, and the Council’s head of Better Places for Better People Catriona Brady adds that the series can create a groundswell of action and awareness that sets a path for more enabling policies moving forward.

“We wanted to do for the built environment what Blue Planet did for plastics…For us, this is an awareness-raising campaign as well as a changing-actions campaign and we want to link it to the individual and their health.

“Success won’t be ‘how many people renovate their homes’; we’re trying to create the same groundswell that we saw with plastics. What we would love to see in two or three years is the same amount of pressure coming on the government for advocacy and policy change for healthy and more sustainable buildings as we saw for the plastics movement.”

edie's Communications and Reporting online sessions

On Thursday 7 May, edie hosted three back-to-back online events on sustainability and reporting best-practice. Featuring speakers from Toast Ale, Capgemini, Innocent and others, the free events are perfect for those looking to revamp approaches to engagement during lockdown.

Watch the sessions here.

Matt Mace



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