Towards Climate-Smart Buildings and Infrastructure: A Call to Built Environment Practitioners

Last updated: 13th June 2024

Dr Tim Forman, Senior Teaching Associate and Course Director of the Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment postgraduate courses, calls for built environment practitioners to consider climate change and climate risk more holistically to achieve ‘climate-smart’ buildings and infrastructure.

First published April 19 2024 on the Built Environment News website.

Although some view climate change and loss of natural capital as distant threats, these interlinked trends are now described by scientists as ‘emergencies’ due to their accelerating pace and the corresponding risks of severe impacts to our natural, social and economic systems. Already, we are seeing evidence of vast impacts: for instance, a recent study found that between 2000 and 2019, 143 billion USD of costs per year were caused globally by extreme weather events attributed to climatic change caused by human activity. Our climate and nature emergencies are unfolding now.

The construction and operation of buildings and associated infrastructure are major drivers of climate change and degradation of natural systems. These activities are commonly recognised as accounting for approximately 40% of energy-related CO2 emissionswith construction and related activities accounting for an estimated one-sixth to one-third of major resource consumption. If we consider the full life cycle of all infrastructure and buildings (including all associated activities from ‘cradle to grave’), this accounts for a whopping 79% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet despite increasing action from policymakers and industry, the necessary changes in the built environment sector are happening at a worryingly slow pace. Meanwhile, atmospheric CO2 levels are soaring (see Figure 1), the ten warmest years on record have occurred in the past ten years, and global average temperature is rising past the 1.5 threshold (see Figure 2), often cited as bringing the greatest risks of climate change.

Graph showing the cjavascript:void(0)ycle of increase and decrease of atmospheric carbon dioxide over 800,000 years

Figure 1: Atmospheric carbon dioxide over 800,000 years (NOAA Climate.gov based on data from Lüthi, et al., 2008)

Graph showing the upward change of global average temperature anomaly relative to 1880-1920 base period

Figure 2: Global average temperature anomaly relative to 1880-1920 base period (https://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/Temperature/)

Clearly, built environment professionals are uniquely positioned to mitigate the causes of climate change. Enormous opportunities lie in decarbonised and nature-positive practices throughout the sector. Crucially, however, these professionals are also best positioned to bolster the resilience of built environments to the worsening impacts of climate change.

The actions required to mitigate the drivers of climate change and improve our resilience to its effects should not be viewed in isolation. In fact, many of the technologies and solutions that enable mitigation also enable resilience and adaptation. For instance, energy-efficient building fabric and services, renewable energy and energy storage, bio-based materials that contribute to healthy ecosystems, and nature-based solutions are some of many strategies that achieve both goals.

In contrast, targeting these goals in silos risks setting back progress towards one goal whilst progressing toward another.

‘Climate smart’ describes an integrated approach to practice in the built environment sector that responds to multiple priorities holistically. A climate smart approach can provide assets that:

  1. are appropriately robust to withstand climate conditions and their effects on human, built and natural systems and are ‘future fit’
  2. minimise risks by reducing the generation of greenhouse gases and depletion of natural capital
  3. maximise the sharing of benefits, including by prioritising equitable outcomes for disadvantaged and vulnerable community members
  4. are fiscally sensible, accounting for life cycle cost, risk premiums and discounts
  5. are planned holistically and in alignment with ‘systems thinking’, proactively, transparently and with accountability (see Figure 3).

Venn diagram showing the four overlapping concepts of 'Climate Smart': Climate change mitigation (decarbonisation), Equitable social benefits, Climate change adaptation and resilience, and Financially beneficial over time.

Figure 3: Defining the ‘climate smart’ paradigm for buildings and infrastructure

The climate smart agenda calls for climate smart policies and regulations, innovation and investment, education for society and professions, and – crucially — collaboration across disciplines including designers and planners, constructors, operators, financiers, scientists and specialists, policymakers and more. Our best chance of a safe, prosperous and equitable future lies in the changes we make today.

Delivering exceptional future-fit built environment projects requires the deep-skill discipline of many individuals sharing a collective vision and purpose. Our Sustainability Leadership for the Built Environment programmes teach global best practices through project-based learning, with a focus on collaboration and leadership in professional practice. Applications for 2024 entry to the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Certificate and Master’s in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment and associated scholarships and bursaries open in September 2024 for 2025 entry.

 



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