A green recovery

How can we ensure a renewed focus on climate change and other environmental issues after Covid-19, asks CIBSE’s Julie Godefroy

When the Covid-19 pandemic is finally bought under control, budgets will be stretched, people will be concerned about their livelihoods, and government may be tempted by short-term action and lower standards as a route to economic recovery. We must argue for a green recovery: prioritise economic policies and incentives aligned with climate and environmental goals.

Biodiversity and the climate are still an emergency, and linked to global health

The spread of infectious diseases has long been listed among the global – and UK – health risks from climate change. The recent pandemic is highlighting that:

The risk of virus transmission from animals to humans increases with degradation of habitats, to which the construction industry contributes through its huge demand for resources

Air pollution increases respiratory conditions and, therefore, people’s vulnerability to coronavirus. Evidence also suggests pollution increases air transmission; virus particles attach themselves to particulate matters, so stay airborne and travel further instead of settling onto surfaces, where they, typically, have a shorter life.

The lockdowns have also accentuated the value of measures with health, wellbeing and environmental benefits in normal situations: urban planning – which allows air circulation and lets sunlight into buildings – and access to outdoor green space close to homes.

What could form part of a green recovery?

A large-scale programme of deep, low carbon retrofit. As the Committee on Climate Change stated in 2019, ‘retrofit of the 29 million existing homes across the UK should now be a national infrastructure priority’. It is essential to meet our climate goals,  and will contribute significantly to job creation and UK export opportunities. This will require huge development in supply chains to achieve quality and carbon outcomes. We may now have a unique opportunity to start this – for example, with staff who are furloughed, unemployed or at risk of becoming so.

A green recovery doesn’t have to cost more

Dealing with climate change later will cost more, so short-term costs should not be a barrier. We will need new ways to value projects to take better account of their environmental and social impacts. For example, new asset-valuation approaches, and planning appraisals that consider outcomes such as resilience and long-term health savings.

We should work with the insurance sector to incorporate not only a building’s exposure to climate change – such as flooding risks – but also its contribution to it, to reflect that high-carbon buildings may become stranded assets.

In the shorter term, there are ways to minimise the costs of carbon reduction. CIBSE is exploring several ideas:

Demonstrating zero carbon at no/low additional costs: with other organisations, CIBSE aims to publicise case studies, including measured building performance and capital costs – starting with the CIBSE awards shortlists and Leti archetypes

Rethinking the policy and incentive framework: CIBSE will create a list of existing policies and financial incentives that are counterproductive to climate goals, and that should be reshaped or removed.

Get in touch if you would like to contribute or have other suggestions.

What we can take from the pandemic

The pandemic is short-lived compared to the climate-change timeline. It also has a sense of immediacy, making usually unacceptable things acceptable. Moreover, it is associated with hardship for a huge number of people; lockdowns have temporary benefits – such as reducing air pollution and carbon emissions – but they don’t represent the scenarios we want to build to convince politicians and the public of the need for action.

The current crisis has useful messages:

We must be guided by the science and apply prevention measures; late action and cure will cost more. We also need to be more resilient, with more preparation and planning, and buffers in the system

Our habits and behaviours can change. Examples include: rapid industry adaptation and innovation to respond to urgent healthcare needs; fast-tracked national and global processes for medical research and approvals; and community-led action to support neighbours, the vulnerable and the NHS.

This must be encouraging and allow us to be ambitious.