The countdown to the 2015 general election is about to begin. With 13 months to go, the parties are busily finalising their manifestos. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we must mitigate or face the worst consequences of climate change. Melanie Thompson of Get Sust! reflects on the construction industry’s frustrations, vented at Ecobuild in March, and concludes that if we don’t lobby hard now, we won’t get the manifestos we – and the planet – need.

If a week is a long time in politics, five years is a lifetime. In environmental terms, whole species can be lost in far less than five years; untold damage can be wrought (through natural or anthropogenic means); and once-promising policies can be quickly shelved or side-lined in favour of headline-grabbing ‘solutions’. But when it comes to beneficial changes, five years seems barely enough to get a policy written, never mind begin to implement it. Even after 30 years of painstaking scientific analysis, international awareness-raising and multiple policy initiatives, the global community is struggling to achieve the necessary dramatic reduction in carbon emissions.

… we urgently need to begin to take steps to mitigate the wide-ranging effects of climate change.

The recent publication of part three of the ‘state of the planet’ report by the IPCC (Climate change 2014: Mitigation of climate change externallink) does not admit defeat and condemn the world to uncontrollable warming, but it does give the strongest warning yet that, as well as not letting up on the overarching goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we urgently need to begin to take steps to mitigate the wide-ranging effects of climate change.

With a UK general election just over a year away, it is increasingly important that climate change rises back up the political agenda. But there remain prominent political voices in the UK (and elsewhere) who at best do not take the issue sufficiently seriously and at worse campaign vociferously that it is all stuff and nonsense or some sort of anti-capitalist conspiracy.

Small wonder that Lord Deben – chairman of the UK’s Committee for Climate Change, and (as John Gummer MP) environment secretary in John Major’s government – sounded thoroughly exasperated when, at Ecobuild 2014 on 4 March, he attacked the BBC’s ongoing insistence on inviting ‘dissenting voices’ externallink on radio and TV shows every time climate change is discussed ‘to ensure balance’. To loud applause from the Ecobuild audience, Lord Deben said he could not think of any practising scientists in the field who disagree with the basic premise of anthropogenic climate change, but he acknowledged that there is still a good deal of propaganda and lobbying that is hampering positive action.

But even among the ‘believers’ at Ecobuild there was an undercurrent of frustration among seasoned industry experts who vented their concerns at the construction sector’s slow pace of change, and the lack of a clear route for reducing carbon emissions and increasing sustainability.

Government policies: Tipping point for carbon targets

Frustration was certainly an underlying theme for the first seminar in the Design zone on the subject of ‘Near zero non-domestic buildings – the best approach’. Although there were some interesting case studies presented by the speakers at this seminar (the Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre externallink, for instance), it was their comments about lack of concerted government action that reverberated throughout the opening day of the event.

The seminar was introduced by Dr David Strong, who is formerly of BRE and Inbuilt Consulting Ltd but now an independent consultant and Chairman of the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Buildings (EEPB). Not for the first time, Strong criticised ‘greenwash’ and the tendency to adopt an ‘eco-bling’ approach to achieving the desired zero-carbon target for new buildings. But it was unexpected that Strong, in his role as chair of a session on zero-carbon buildings, would express concern about the validity of aiming for zero-carbon homes – warning that unless this ambition is managed very carefully it can lead to perverse outcomes, particularly in terms of air permeability and daylighting.

Likening some of these homes to “living in a house [that’s] wearing a plastic bag”, Strong stressed that it is too easy to get the ventilation strategy wrong. Likewise, in the rush to reduce heat losses it is tempting to reduce the size of windows, but this is counter-productive in terms of maximising daylighting. However, this does not mean we should abandon hope of achieving very-low-carbon strategies which, says Strong, can be very successful. In his experience, the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) externallinkprovides the necessary rigour and discipline throughout the design process to ensure that perverse outcomes can be avoided.

The rumblings of frustration that Strong had hinted at in his introduction were somewhat louder in the presentation of the first speaker, Sandy Liddell Halliday of Gaia Group, who dedicated her talk to the memory of her husband and business partner, Howard Liddell. Halliday set the scene by recounting her experiences of the industry from her early days at BSRIA in the 1990s and the industry’s disappointing tendency to favour eco-bling instead of passive design throughout the past 20 years of gradually tightening Building Regulations. As an aside, she noted that most of the non-domestic buildings near Ecobuild’s London venue, including Canary Wharf, predate the improvements in building design standards and unfortunately are set to have long and energy-guzzling futures.

Halliday told the Ecobuild audience that her loathing for building services and her disappointment at the profligate use of natural resources led to her establishing, with Howard Liddell, the Gaia Group. As part of her research there, Halliday has collected numerous examples of design in practice, ranging from the ‘perverse outcome’ of zero-carbon homes with electric heaters hidden out of view (definitely bad) to the ‘Weetabix school’ externallink modelled on excellence from Scandinavia (good), and has written extensively on sustainable construction (including the Green Guide to the Architect's Job Book). These days, however, she is concentrating on capacity building, and helping clients to write successful briefs for passive and sustainable buildings.

She was followed to the Ecobuild podium by Mark Allen of Saint-Gobain externallink who, among other things, reminded the Ecobuild audience that the Building Regulations were originally introduced to ensure the ‘health, wellbeing and safety of occupants’ – something that is easily overlooked in the race for the elusive zero-carbon goal.

But even the zero-carbon goal isn’t clear, Dan Jestico of Hilson Moran later complained. Jestico presented a comprehensive and useful summary of the emissions-related changes to the Building Regulations since the 1990s externallink, highlighting the divergence of the domestic and non-domestic requirements that has left the non-domestic side in a state of considerable uncertainty.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) (recast in 2010) means that from 2020 all new buildings must be ‘nearly zero carbon’, but the most recent review of Approved Document L for England was inconclusive on the non-domestic side. Describing the language in the review as “wobbly”, Jestico echoed a call by 28 industry leaders externallink, made in the run-up to Ecobuild, for a firm government commitment on the zero-carbon target (as opposed to a weak promise to “consider extending the zero-carbon target to 2019”).

He also emphasised the industry’s frustration that, without a clear road map, UK-based construction businesses are delaying their research and development (R&D) efforts, which could result in them missing out on crucial opportunities to export their techniques and talents into wider Europe. His evidence for this comes primarily from a report by the UK Green Building Council’s Low Carbon Innovation Co-ordination Group: “Innovation in the non-domestic buildings sector … could help create export opportunities that could contribute an estimated £1.7bn to GDP to 2050.” (Technology Innovation Needs Assessment (TINA) Non-domestic buildings summary report externallink, LCICG (UKGBC), November 2012)

Nitesh Magdani of BAM, wearing his UKGBC hat for this Ecobuild seminar, added to the list of frustrations by drawing attention to the success of the UK motor industry, which is leading the world with its R&D for Formula 1 – reducing costs and emissions, but increasing performance. Why can’t the construction industry follow suit?

A question from the audience wondered whether it is wrong to blame the government for lack of progress: why isn’t the industry just getting on with it? Another questioner blamed clients who prefer to cut corners and make short-term savings rather than considering long-term benefits.

But there are rarely winners in a blame game. Instead, what we need are solutions – in the form of clear-cut and long-term policies, so that everyone knows where we are heading and can set off in the confidence that there will not be a diversion a few miles down the road.

Elsewhere around the Ecobuild halls there were hints of alternatives to carbon target chasing. Professor Tim Dixon of the University of Reading said that the over-emphasis on the energy-related aspects of sustainability mean that we have lost sight of the social dimension of sustainability. However, tools are emerging that can assess this important factor. One example is the ‘wheel of social sustainability’, tested at six sites in 2013 including Kidbrooke Village externallink in south-east London. Another example – the Healthy Cities Index (HCI) externallink – was presented by Ian Barnett of BRE. The HCI draws on numerous global datasets to assess sustainability at the city, rather than building, scale using novel (and potentially controversial) assessment criteria such as “building more hospitals is a sign of failure”.

Such tools and the criteria they use to assess sustainability are at the cutting edge of thinking today, but need to be taken into consideration when planning policies for tomorrow.

In fact, we need an atlas full of road maps …

Government policies: Which way now?

In the wake of the IPCC’s mitigation report, and given the cumulative experience of the past 20-odd years of step-by-step changes to regulations and frequent policy shifts, delays or reversals, we can no longer afford to rely on market forces and awareness-raising campaigns: we need a road map, and we need one fast!

In fact, we need an atlas full of road maps – new build is not the only issue at stake. Indeed, under the current government and in the shadow of the global financial crisis, home building slumped to a 40-year low, and the non-domestic sector (especially public projects such as schools and hospitals) virtually ground to a halt, so the agonising over changing targets is, to a certain degree, academic. Retrofit and refurbishment projects are much more significant in terms of cutting energy use (and carbon emissions), reducing fuel poverty and improving health and wellbeing, i.e. sustainability. So we need a road map for retrofit and refurb too.

As it happens, the National Energy Foundation published just such a proposal in March. Based on research by EEPB, the document, Breaking barriers: An industry review of the barriers to Whole House Energy Efficiency Retrofit and the creation of an industry action plan externallink, identifies 415 factors that need to be addressed in order to encourage the take-up of retrofitting millions of homes. It includes some hard-hitting ‘solution ideas’ ranging from more government intervention in the market and a reduction on VAT (to 0%) for refurbishment, to official endorsement for energy-related TV programmes, MBEs for people with super-energy-efficient homes, and the creation of a ‘compare the market’ website for whole-house retrofit!

And then there’s the need for road maps for infrastructure planning, for flood defences, for secure energy supply …

General elections are always important, whatever the ‘they’re all the same’ brigade may think, and the next one more so than most. In or out of Europe? More austerity or more investment? Which way next for health and education, or can we (please) just take a rain check on the perpetual policy shifts? These are important questions. With such pressing matters it is easy to overlook the so-called ‘green agenda’ or push it into the fringes of ‘special interests’, but in truth it underpins all of these matters and more. Some parties already recognise this, others prefer to perpetuate the blame culture and slug it out in a few key marginals by issuing mini policies to tempt the locals.

Over the coming months sustainability professionals should be at the forefront of assessing and challenging the proposals in the parties’ manifestos and speeches. Some are already getting stuck in. RIBA, for instance, is actively considering what advice on sustainability a new government might need, meanwhile Geoff Maitland, professor of energy engineering at Imperial College London and current vice president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), responded swiftly to the IPCC mitigation report, warning:

“The public perception that conventional cheap energy can continue is clearly wrong when issues of climate change are factored in … we need to dispel the myths about continuing low energy prices compounded by political parties focussed on short-term, vote-winning electoral policies.”

The IPCC mitigation report (summary for policy makersexternallink pages 20–27) could be a workable foundation against which to assess manifesto pledges. But manifestos are often light on detail and heavy on sound bites. At the very least we should listen carefully to (and challenge) politicians’ statements on key topics – energy security, fuel poverty, housing, planning, the environment and international cooperation.

It is unlikely that any party will propose something as radical as an idea mentioned at Ecobuild: that the Department of Transport should be given a new mission statement to ‘promote sustainable transport’. There’s always hope!