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Jim McClelland looks ahead to a new item on the COP agenda that focus on health and buildings

As momentum builds towards yet another climate summit at the year end, businesses in the built environment sector might be forgiven for flagging in their enthusiasm.

However, a new item on the agenda for 2023 is actually tailor-made for them, argues Jim McClelland.

Climate summits often resemble something of a three-ring circus, involving plenty of smoke-and-mirrors distractions and attractions.

They are politics as performance; a show.

However, they also agree the targets and goals that ultimately influence and set the policy agenda.

They are somehow both silly and serious at the same time.

The climate is right for buildings to be awarded a clean bill of health

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

No consensus without compromise

The 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) will convene from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In truth, there are always misgivings ahead of any COP. As a global coming-together, the summit represents an ambitious attempt to reconcile a great number and broad range of (often conflicting) expectations and priorities. Achieving consensus is a big ask.

Inevitably, a lot of political horse-trading takes place. Deals get done in legalese, with cleverly-worded compromises buried in the small print of tortuous sub-clauses. As a consequence, critics are often sceptical about the integrity of the process and, ultimately, the credibility of any watered-down commitments likely to be agreed at the 11th hour.

The 2023 event, though, faces some particular perception issues.

Having the world’s most prestigious climate summit hosted in the fossil-fuel heartlands is problematic, for starters. The fact that the President-designate for this year, Sultan Al Jaber, is also the Managing Director and Group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company only makes matters worse. The doubters are circling like vultures already.

So, why should a business in the built environment sector be excited about COP28?

Officially on the climate agenda

One good reason is the introduction of a new topic onto the summit programme that has direct implications for buildings: COP28 will feature a Health Day for the first time.

Making the connection between health impacts and the climate agenda is important on many levels. The linkages, both direct and indirect, extend far beyond the headline stories of vulnerable communities tragically (and repeatedly) affected by sickness and malnutrition in the wake of extreme weather events such as droughts, or floods.

In the UK, for example, the connection can be found a lot closer to home, literally.

A report published by BRE in 2021 quantified the cost burden to the NHS caused by hazards arising from poor quality housing in England. Its findings revealed that 2.6 million homes – 11% of the country’s housing stock – were categorised as ‘poor quality’.

The direct cost to the National Health Service (NHS) of this poor housing was calculated to be around £1.4bn a year. Beyond the immediate hit on the NHS, the study also estimated the associated annual ‘societal costs’, such as those relating to long-term care, mental health and educational underachievement. These could equate to as much as £18.5bn.

For the NHS, the costliest issue attributable to poor housing by far is ‘excess cold’.

In the latest update to the data made earlier this year, BRE identified over 700,000 homes in England that could officially be classed as ‘excessively cold’. It also found that the NHS spends over £540M a year treating people affected by the worst properties.

Indoor air quality is a killer

With skyrocketing energy bills driving fuel poverty at present, the risk of excess cold is obviously on the rise. Residents have been facing a real heat-or-eat dilemma as a result of the current cost-of-living crisis, plus knock-on effects in terms of damp and mould.

In turn, damp and mould impact negatively on indoor air quality (IAQ). On a positive note, though, IAQ is one issue on which the built environment sector is increasingly active.

In conjunction with Mitsubishi, for example, the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has published a free introductory guide to IAQ to help increase awareness about the ‘invisible threat’ itself and why it is a national health crisis.

Again, the direct health implications of IAQ are significant. According to advice produced for healthcare professionals by the UK manufacturers’ association BEAMA, poor IAQ is reported to have an annual cost to the UK of over 204,000 healthy life years — 45% of those lost to cardiovascular diseases, 23% to asthma and allergy, and 15% to lung cancer.

Buildings with a clean bill of health

So, in one sense, it might be argued that the UK built environment sector does not need another summit to tell it what it already knows: namely, that when it comes to buildings such as homes and schools, health concerns and climate impacts are inextricably linked.

Perhaps, then, Health Day at COP28 is better viewed as an opportunity for the industry to set out its stall, as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem on climate action.

The climate is right for buildings to be awarded a clean bill of health.

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker