Are We Keeping Pace with Climate Change?

Are we keeping pace with climate change?

By Caroline Dinnage

While the UK experienced a hot, dry long summer it’s easy to forget that a few months ago parts of the UK were facing snow and ice from the ‘Beast from the East’. The extremes of temperature and weather across the globe this year, along with reports of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic melting at accelerated rates, have prompted eminent scientists to raise more urgent questions on the influence of climate change on extreme weather events and signal that they may become more frequent.

The International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) have published a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C. Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, ecosystems and disaster risk are shown to be significantly higher at global temperature rises of 2°C than 1.5°C. The report emphasises that the current pace of development and deployment of adaptation and mitigation options is too slow and that, at the current rate, we are likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052.

So, what is being done to mitigate and adapt to climate change? The UK Government state in the 25 Year Environment Plan that they ‘will lead the fight against climate change’ and ‘take all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact’. As promising as these proclamations sound, it only takes a quick look at actual implementation to question whether ‘all possible action’ is being taken.

National and local policy, as well as different government departments, take diverging approaches to climate change. National policy sets out commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Climate Change Act and Paris Agreement). Local planning policy reflects this with a general trend to focus on energy efficiency measures and decarbonising energy supplies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Conversely, with the withdrawal of the Code for Sustainable Homes back in 2015, developers are only required to meet the minimum energy and water efficiency requirements set out in the Building Regulations Part L. This inevitably limits the reduction of CO2 achieved from new housing developments, despite there being the capacity to do this to a greater extent. This has been reflected in the 2017 Report to Parliament – Meeting Carbon Budgets which finds that progress in reducing GHG emissions has stalled, with reductions largely confined to the power sector, whilst emissions from transport and building stock rises.

On the flip side of this, the Road to Zero Strategy has moved away from reducing CO2 emissions to reducing NOx emissions on public health grounds rather than climate change. While supporting low / zero emission vehicles also reduces GHG emissions, the focus on NOx emissions by the Department of Transport does not show a coherent approach to tackling national GHG emissions.

The 2017 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations sits in between these policies and now requires overall climate change to be considered within the EIA process. These regulations require an assessment of ‘significant effects’ in relation to the impacts of climate change, including vulnerability of a development to climate change as well as the nature and magnitude of GHG emissions emitted by a development. The extent of mitigation of these effects however, relies on the requirements set by national and local policy which, as discussed above, is not as strong or demanding as it could be.

What’s more, new studies show that cutting GHG emissions to current targets may not be enough to stop the rise in global temperatures. Human emissions of GHGs are not the sole determinant of temperature on Earth and therefore a combined approach is needed to maximise chances of avoiding planetary thresholds. This could include enhancement and/or creation of new biological carbon stores, for example, through improved forest, agricultural and soil management; biodiversity conservation; resource use and behavioural change. Pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C identified in the IPCC report would require rapid transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure and industrial systems.

It is no longer the case that climate change impacts are too distant to consider and the business case for climate change mitigation and adaption is clear. Whilst some may say that Government should adopt more robust requirements, such intervention is usually a sign that the willingness of those in the design and planning process is not strong enough and needs to be leveraged to make a change. Governance is needed to provide incentives to act and encompass a collaborative framework that includes appropriate institutional arrangements, engagement and communication strategies, along with monitoring and evaluation to achieve sustainable carbon reduction.

The most obvious place to start with carbon emission reductions and offsetting is in new build properties. The skills, the knowledge, the technology and building design all exist to make a significant contribution to carbon reduction measures but are often overlooked in favour of cost reduction measures to deliver more profit. Great opportunities are being missed as it is easier to implement such measures at the time of design, planning and implementation. If we don’t make the carbon reductions now we may find pressure to retrofit properties in the future to make them more carbon neutral. The cost savings being made now by not implementing good carbon reduction opportunities in new build will be far outweighed by the cost in the future both financially and environmentally.