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Make do and mend

Posted: 30th March 2022

Eleanor Earl

Doctoral Candidate

The University of New South Wales

On the 27th September, during the second-warmest September on record for the UK, a diverse group of stakeholders from across the finance and built environment sectors gathered at Chatham House.

Individuals from various parts of the industry including consultancies, academia, trade associations, asset managers, were gathered to explore how those working across finance and the built environment could better encourage sustainable development. The workshop explored what ‘good’ might look like, the opportunities, challenges, and gaps for our sectors. It is clear that many difficult questions need to be asked as we move from a more outputs to outcomes driven sector.

Although we tried to focus on links between finance and built environments, many of the ideas shared are key for sustainable development more generally. I’ve distilled the discussions in to just four themes which I hope will resonate with your experiences no matter where you work or what role you play.

Avoid tunnel vision

Although it is great to see an increased focus on carbon in our industry, there is a need to avoid ‘tunnel vision’ in the pursuit for sustainable development and climate action. Given so many challenges and opportunities for our industry are interconnected it is critical for sustainable development that we think more systematically and can move forward with a broader vision.

Rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle…

Despite the evidence that retrofit can achieve far lower carbon emissions than new build, and the increased use of the term in our industry, we are still yet to optimise this to its full potential. This is reflected in our industry media as the ‘new and shiny’ often occupies headlines more than retrofit or, even better, rethinking. We should question why this is the case, how communication of our industry in this way ‘trickles’ across in to allied sectors including investors and what we can do to change this status quo for the better.

It is widely acknowledged that the UK is some of the least energy-efficient building stock in Europe. Given an estimated 80% of buildings in the UK will still be in use by 2050, stimulating innovation and investment will be key for retrofitting our way out of the climate emergency. During the workshop, stories were shared from around the world, including that of a Dutch bank who had provided building insurance customers with a grant for improving the energy efficiency of the building in exchange for data. This in turn reduced risk for the company and improved the relationship with their customers. Exploring who and how we take the risk to support sustainable development decisions is certainly an area for more innovation. As part of this, there was general consensus that clearer minimum standards, regulation, contracts and tendering all play a role and we should investigate further how more sustainable development can be quickly achieved through these different levers.

Ensure more voices are heard

Bringing together all stakeholders from across our industry and beyond will be key to our future success. Public sector/ government stakeholders were a notable absence at the workshop, and we noted that to accelerate change, we all need to work hard to keep the door open for future conversations and bring new people to the table.

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) has become a buzz word, or rather phrase, lately in and beyond our industry. To achieve better outcomes, greater value should be placed on local knowledge and how we incorporate this knowledge into our urban landscapes. As lines between the natural and built environment become blurred this offers a huge opportunity for collaborating with the communities we serve in new ways, consequently unlocking new opportunities for sustainable development.

Given that the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities often have limited opportunity to participate in urban development but are likely to be hit hardest by the climate emergency, we need to reconsider how climate justice plays out in our industry. Is Net Zero enough? Should we be aiming for carbon positive construction? Were all questions posed but there was little consensus on how this might be achieved. This is definitely an area for future thought.

Behaviour change

Although technology will help us optimise and nudge change, its certain that wider behaviour changes are critical to achieving more sustainable developments. Low margins, fragmentation and split incentives encourage glacial change, so more collaborative efforts to challenge these aspects are needed. Additionally, our buildings and infrastructure often have multiple owners across a long lifecycle therefore attention needs to be paid to how we pass value across the chain.

We all have responsibility to train and educate ourselves and share knowledge across all levels and areas of our industry, to be better equipped with the skills needed.

Eleanor Earl

Doctoral Candidate

The University of New South Wales

Eleanor Earl is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of New South Wales and former member of the CIC 2050 Group.