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James Parker reviews the outcomes from the latest international climate change meeting

Speaking regarding the COP27 global climate event in Egypt, Simon Allford, RIBA president, and executive director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris Architects had strong words for the UK.

They focused on the need for actions to match the meaningful words, if we have any chance on net zero, and limiting global temperatures rises to even 2 degrees long-term.

Allford commented: "I am concerned that we will continue to focus on the risks of the climate emergency, rather than the solutions to addressing it. We must shift towards interdisciplinary education and practice, commit to reporting successes and sharing lessons learned, and constantly challenge current methods and approaches to ensure all practice is aligned with our sustainability goals."

I could not agree more.

We have spent far too long on bemoaning the potential challenges of rising flood waters, crops failing, and mass migration.

This means raising architects to the top of the agenda and funding them to take bold decisions

James Parker James Parker Managing editor, Architects’ Datafile?

A huge challenge ahead

There is general acceptance of the huge agenda and the challenge – what we need are ideas on solutions that will work on the macro scale in the UK.

The Government is tinkering with planning reforms, but it should be contemplating a mandatory national insulation retrofit plan, which won’t rely on sometimes unscrupulous installers such as the failed Green Deal.

And it should be pushing Passivhaus-level housing schemes wherever possible.

The absence of a real ‘Ministry of Construction’ (instead Housing is buried within the Levelling Up department now under Michael Gove), suggests however that the solutions proposed will continue to be far from prescriptive.

Allford believes that architects hold the key: "As a sector, we have the tools, knowledge, and technology to address the climate and biodiversity emergency. The challenge is to deploy them at the speed and scale necessary."

This means raising architects to the top of the agenda, and funding them within projects to take the bold decisions to drive towards previously unseen building efficiency in a range of sectors.

I can dream!

Just not good enough

The Future Homes Standard is a laudable step in the right direction, but even that (in terms of its 2022 Part L uplift) is fudged to help developers adjust, with the real deadline being June 2023.

This simply isn’t good enough when the urgency has been known about for decades.

David Cameron’s ‘green crap’ remark was indicative of a cynicism that still exists in some parts of the centre, that this is somehow all ‘bling’ or salesmanship, rather than a case of all hands to the deck.

But what about retrofit? Where is the national strategy?

The fact it is complex and messy is precisely why it needs to happen now.

In the meantime, groups like the House Builders Federation, spooked by an exponential rise in mortgage rates no doubt, is putting out data saying that new build is better for zero carbon than refurbishment.

A last minute trip

Rishi Sunak has recommitted to the goals, including putting $11.6bn into climate change internationally.

However, he added the slightly confusing note that the Government “as part of this, would now triple our funding on adaptation to £1.5bn by 2025.”

This seems to acknowledge the need for international action now, given the imminent risk of impacts.

Just in time he realised the impact of not turning his diary around so he could in fact go to Egypt, to show willing. However, sneaking out of a COP session on a new global partnership to plant forests was, as they say, not a good look.

Now he needs to grapple with the more demanding, but less headline-grabbing aspects of fixing his own patch – when it comes to increasing spending on energy efficiency in our buildings.

He says he is “absolutely committed to net zero,” but does he have the courage to push forward interventionist policies on action to actually achieve it?

Some like to spout the received wisdom that ‘there’s no point acting because China is doing all the emissions’ - but this is wrong-headed.

Yes, they have built a lot of coal power plants in recent years, but they have also realised the consequences, and taken action.

They are currently installing enough solar and wind generation to provide 1.2 billion kilowatts by 2030; we have gone whole-heartedly for offshore wind, but our policies on onshore, and PV in industrial and agricultural settings are feeble.

A top-down international approach

The bottom line for all Governments is that firing up national industries as well as governments in order to make real progress requires the sort of international cooperation and sense of not just a shared mission but also sharing risks and responsibilities that we just haven’t seen.

We need to be helping bring Global South countries with us, financially, but also trying to intervene in markets where the investment isn’t happening fast enough, such as housebuilding in the UK.

It means something like a top-down, international set of carrots, but mainly sticks, the like of which we have never seen before.

The world became more and more dislocated and devolved through Covid, as well as other factors preceding it.

Now we need to come back together with a ‘united nations’ approach to tackling all aspects of emissions reduction, from the most mundane window film to the biggest power station.

James Parker is editor of Architect’s DataFile and Housebuilder & Developer