Taking action on Climate Change

by Michelle Agha-Hossein, BSRIA Building Performance Lead

Most nations now recognise climate change as an established, perturbing fact that needs immediate attention. We can see the effects in the worsening and more frequent extremes of weather: flash floods, droughts, strong winds, heavy snow, heat waves, etc.

UK temperatures in 2019 were 1.1°C above the 1961-1990 long-term average and it was a particularly wet year across parts of central and northern England. Still fresh in the memory are storms Ciara and Dennis in February 2020 with strong winds and heavy rain that caused significant damage to homes and commercial buildings. There is growing evidence that periods of intensely strong winds and heavy rain are likely to increase in the future.

The UK is not the only country affected by climate change. Many other countries are (and will be) suffering disproportionately. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that we might have just 12 years to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5°C. After this point, the risk of extreme weather conditions will significantly increase. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather will affect all but is most likely to bring catastrophic consequences in many less economically developed countries, where food shortages and water scarcity can trigger deep social changes.

Immediate radical action is required to limit carbon emissions, and the built environment industry can play a crucial role by changing the prevailing culture.

Most building-related carbon emissions are generated from energy use in buildings. However, there are choices that building owners/operators can make and initiatives that they can undertake to lessen the related negative impact on the environment:

In brand new buildings, the most effective way for addressing emissions is reducing consumption through energy efficient design. In existing buildings, the issue can be addressed by efficient retrofitting and effective maintenance strategy. Adopting renewable energy technologies in both cases can significantly reduce building emissions.

Steps building owners and operators can take today.

There are several initiatives/activities that can help building owners/operators combat climate change:

  • Consider ‘net-zero carbon’ targets for your building: UKGBC launched its Advancing Net Zero programme in 2018 and published the ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition’ in 2019. The framework provides the construction industry with clarity on the outcomes required for a net zero carbon building.
  • Ensure the required outcomes for a ‘net-zero carbon’ building are achieved: As advised by UKGBC in the framework definition, initiatives like BSRIA Soft Landings should be adopted in new build as well as in refurbishment projects to ensure a net zero carbon building will be achieved. The BSRIA Soft Landings framework provides a platform for project teams to understand the required outcomes for their project and ensure all decisions made during the project are based on meeting those outcomes.
  • Maintain your net zero carbon building effectively: Business-focused maintenance is a methodology developed by BSRIA that can be adopted to help building operators maintain critical assets effectively and efficiently to sustain a net zero carbon building within budget.
  • Investigate failure quickly: Is the energy bill for your building higher than it should be? Investigate the problem as soon as you can. The first and easiest step would be looking at the energy end use breakdown to see which areas are using more energy than expected. If the issue is related to the HVAC system, check the system’s setting points and monitor the indoor air temperature and relative humidity. Thermal imaging of the fabric of the building can also help to identify, thermal bridging, missing/damaged insulation and areas of excessive air leakage.
  • Promote a healthy diet among building occupants: This is a non-technical initiative that building owners/operators can adopt in their buildings. Eating less meat and gradually shifting to more plant-based foods is vital for keeping us and our planet healthy.  It is important to think about initiatives such as using signage or lunchtime talks, to educate building occupants about healthy diets and encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables. Research has shown that adhering to health guidelines on meat consumption could cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050. Healthy diet is also supported by Fitwel and the WELL building standard.

Building owners and operators, to play their role in combating climate change, should ensure their decisions and the way they create and run their buildings contribute positively to the wellbeing of our planet and its citizens.

So, make a start today and choose the first thing you are going to assess/change in your building to help combat climate change.

To find out more about how BSRIA can help you improve building performance, visit us here.

The wellbeing and environmental effects of agile working

by David Bleicher, BSRIA Publications Manager

How many times in the last few months have you started a sentence with “When things get back to normal…”? For those of us whose work mostly involves tapping keys on a keyboard, “normal” implies commuting to an office building five days a week and staying there for eight or more hours a day.

When lockdown restrictions were imposed, things that were previously unthinkable, such as working from home every day, conducting all our meetings by video call, and not having easy access to a printer, became “the new normal”.

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that changes to our work habits are possible – we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. Since lockdown, agile working has been high on companies’ agendas; but agile working has a broader scope than flexible working. It is defined as “bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task.”

Working from home with a cat

The triple bottom line

Agile working is indeed about much more than changing people’s working hours and locations. It’s about how people work – becoming focused on the outcome rather than the process. It’s about making the best use of technology to achieve those outcomes and it’s also about reconfiguring workplaces to better suit the new ways of working. But, when considering these outcomes, we should be looking further than the financial bottom line. The term triple bottom line is a framework that also brings social and environmental aspects into consideration.

How, when and where people work has a major impact on their wellbeing. The past few months have served as an unintentional experiment in the wellbeing effects of mass home working. Some people are less stressed and more productive working from home, providing they have regular contact with their colleagues. Other people – particularly those who don’t have a dedicated home working space – returned to their offices as soon as it was safe to do so. It depends on the individual’s preferences, personal circumstances and the nature of the work they do.

On the face of it, it would seem that increased working from home or from local coworking spaces would be a win-win for the environment. Less commuting means fewer CO2 emissions and less urban air pollution. But a study by global consulting firm and BSRIA member, WSP, found that year-round home working could result in an overall increase in CO2 emissions.

In short, it reduces office air conditioning energy use in the summer, but greatly increases home heating energy use in the winter – more than offsetting carbon savings from reduced commuting. Perhaps what this highlights most is just how inefficient the UK’s housing stock is. If we all lived in low energy homes with good level insulation and electric heat pumps, the equation would be very different. Perhaps a flexible solution allowing home working in summer and promoting office working in winter would be best from an environmental perspective.

A possible long-term effect of increased home working is that some people may move further away from their offices. For example, someone might choose to swap a five-days-a-week 20 km commute for a one-day-a-week 100 km commute. If that is also a move to a more suburban or rural location with more scattered development, less public transport and fewer amenities within walking distance, then (for that individual at least) there’ll be an increased carbon footprint. Not very agile.

Impact of technology

There’s another aspect that may not yet come high up in public awareness. Remote working is dependent on technology – in particular, the video calls that so many of us have become adept at over the past few months. All this processing burns up energy. The effect on home and office electricity bills may be negligible because the processing is done in the cloud. This isn’t some imaginary, nebulous place. The cloud is really a network of data centres around the world, churning data at lightning speed and, despite ongoing efforts, still generating a whole lot of CO2 emissions in the process. Videoconferencing definitely makes sense from both an economic and environmental perspective when it reduces the need for business travel, but if those people would “normally” be working in the same building, isn’t it just adding to global CO2 emissions?

We don’t yet know what “the new normal” is going to look like. Undoubtedly, we’re going to see more remote working, but responsible employers should weigh up the pros and cons economically, environmentally and socially. Terminating the lease on an office building may seem like a sensible cost saving, but can a workforce really be productive when they never meet face-to-face? Does an activity that seemingly reduces CO2 emissions actually just increase emissions elsewhere? Any agile working solution must take all of these things into account, and not attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to productivity, environmental good practice and employee wellbeing.

For more information on how BSRIA can support your business with energy advice and related services, visit us here: BSRIA Energy Advice.

COP 21 – Success or Failure

This blog was written by Richard Hillyard, a Senior Environmental Consultant

This blog was written by Richard Hillyard, a Senior Environmental Consultant

Well, we have a climate change agreement for 2020 and beyond in the Paris Accord, approved this weekend.  But is this an adequate level of progress needed to seriously tackle the problem of climate change?  Compared to 6 years ago and the utter failure in Copenhagen, first glance suggests yes, but it’s not perfect.

Two weeks ago leaders from around the world gathered for probably the most important and significant international government conferences of our time, COP21. Prior to these talks, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), campaigning organisations, environmentalists and individuals from all over the world took to the streets to protest and generate an atmosphere of urgency for a strong positive agreement to be achieved.

COP21 started with an inspiring speech of HRH Prince of Wales calling to arms the politicians of the world to take responsibility and deliver an agreement that will start the progress to reduced CO2 emissions and planetary stability. “On an increasingly crowded planet, humanity faces many threats, but none is greater than climate change. It magnifies every hazard and tension of our existence… It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to remain healthy, and safe from extreme weather, to manage the natural resources that support our economies, and avert the humanitarian disaster of mass migration and increasing conflict.”

This was followed by leaders of each country all making the same points, using strong rhetoric, all pointing out the obvious and what the informed already know.  The rhetoric from the politicians had a passion and sincerity on a level that I had not heard before.  Could Paris and COP21 be the success the world and its people need it to be?

Barack Obama, a driving force in these discussions, determined to leave behind a Presidential legacy before he steps down, not worried about re-election stated “the future is on that we have the power to change – right here, right now… One of the enemies we will be fighting is cynicism – the notion that we can’t do anything about climate change” urging a “common purpose [for a] world that is not marked by conflict but by co-operation”, concluding “Lets go to work.”

One of the few blemishes being David Cameron stating, “what would we say to our grandchildren if we failed. We would have to say it was too difficult, they would reply, well what was so difficult?… How can we argue that it’s difficult when in London alone there’s 5 trillion of funds under management and we haven’t already begun to generate the private finance that is possible to help tackle climate change?”

Highly contentious in my view, as it is him and his government that are cutting financial support for clean and renewable energy and instead pushing for shale gas fracking with a very questionable UK energy policy.

Following the opening day, the media lost interest and there was practically no coverage in the mainstream media during the 2 weeks of discussions.  However, from what was available, it was clear there was a hive of activity between the main discussions, informal meetings and fringe campaigns that appear to have been running 24/7. Such is the complexity over agreement of document text, working groups were giving paragraphs to negotiate with each country.

From the start, the French leadership were doing their job perfectly, they communicated a sense of direct urgency and urged the UN to deliver an approved agreement.  In the latter part of  the second week the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ represented, a group of 100 countries, who have been working in the wings secretly for half a year. They helped to push policy agreements through late in the day and on Saturday the world finally got to hear what was agreed.

Not only a commitment to limit global warming to 2oC change, but also to aim to reduce it further to 1.5oC.  This is highly ambitious, yet committed unilateral agreed target., seeing as the world is already heading to a 1oC degree increase in global temperature, limiting it by another half a degree is some target to have agreed.

There are a few challenges with this target, and where the Paris Accord shows cracks, there is no time frame except for ‘second half of the century’ and there are no real mechanisms agreed to ensure delivery of this target, just a promise.  But this is a start, to seriously tackle climate change and hopefully the beginning of releasing the world from its fossil fuel addition.

The agreement includes a legally binding 5-year review of countries targets, and the ability for them to improve their objectives to work towards a low carbon future.   However, 5 years is a long time, long enough for the world leaders not to be in power next time around and be held accountable.  Considering the target of 1.5 degrees, this time frame is not feasible, the reviews are important and are legally binding but should have been annually or every 2 years to ensure targets and commitments are being delivered in a time frame that will actually limit temperature increases. Additionally, how will this be policed and by whom to ensure accountability by nations?

It is also worth noting that the terms ‘fossil fuels’, ‘oil’, ‘coal’, and ‘gas’ do not appear once in the text of the Paris Accord. It looks like corporate lobbying has played a part in the delivery of this final text, which is a real shame as the document should of at least acknowledged the link between the use of these finite resources, their link to GHG emissions and climate change.

Developing countries already receiving financial aid for assisting them with the effects of climate change, all feel they need further support from the countries already causing climate change and in many cases rightly so. This was a contentious area in the negotiations and Saudi Arabia caused a lot of problems due to their economy largely dependent on oil.  But none the less, an agreement of $100bn base line annual aid would be made available.  Many NGOs and commentators believe this to be a significant failure in the process as more help is needed from the developing world to mitigate the effects as well as evolve their economies to the new low carbon energy infrastructure needed.

Listening to the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, their Prime Minister, Francois Hollande, and head of UN, Ban Ki-moon speaking on Saturday morning was for me emotional, are we on the brink something truly incredible as they would have us believe or is the Paris Accord another ‘empty promise’ with no substance to actually deliver?  In the hours and days that have passed, I have had time to reflect and take it all in, I am optimistic and definitely more positive about the international political landscape in this area than I have been for a number of years.  COP21 has managed to get an agreement from nearly 200 countries and this should be applauded long with the target and legally binding reviews.

As Ban Ki-Moon stated, there had to be compromise, no one got 100% of what each country wanted at the start of the negotiations.  I think this is also true from the environmental campaigning, activist and NGO perspective with the agreement not delivering on a level that many believe is required, not going in to detail on how targets would be achieved and not committing enough to help those who will suffer first and most with the effects of climate change.

Wholesale system change doesn’t happen over night, we know this and I believe no matter what would have been agreed in Paris, to many, myself included, it would not have been enough and open for criticism.

Expectation is high and its easy to pick holes in the agreement.  What needs to done, is to reflect and look at the outcomes differently – There is an agreement approved, there is a target agreed, there are legally binding elements and there is some financial aid. I would of taken that 2 weeks ago and I think many others would.

Paris and COP 21 is not the end of the road when it comes to climate change, it is the beginning of the next part of our worlds environmental and climate journey.  The targets are in place, the leadership of the world is agreed that limiting GHG emissions is critical to success.  In fact just 24 hours after COP 21, the UK governments energy policy is already being scrutinised by politicians and media, an early indication of positivity from the Paris talks.

It is now up to us, the environmentalists, the activist and the environmentally considered to continue to drive for delivery against promises, hold those who fail to account and keep on the pressure to those who stand in the way of climate revolution, at the same time, applaud and celebrate where there have been successes and victories. The optimist in me tells me that Paris and COP21 was one of those victories and successes. So let’s embrace it and make it work for our future and the planet.

This blog post was written by Richard Hillyard MSc. Pg Dip. BA(Hons). AIEMA. Richard is a Senior Environmental Consultant at a major international property management company with 13 years environmental and energy experience, including the provision of CRC, ESOS, EED, EUETS compliance, CDP and Carbon Standard Reporting as well as EMS implementation and management. Prior to this, Richard was part of the FM consultancy team with BSRIA and also holds a MSc in Environmental Decision Making.

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