Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Briony Turner – When it’s not good for the built environment sector to feature in the top three…

Hot off the press, the Committee on Climate Change has just published an independent Evidence Report, titled “UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017” setting out the latest evidence on the risks and opportunities to the UK from climate change and providing a localised breakdown for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The top 6 priorities identified for urgent action over the next five years are:

The built environment is closely linked with the top three of these six immediate priority areas. The risks presented are not just physical but also cover impact on public health and well-being.

The background is that every five years the Government must publish a UK-wide Climate Change Risk Assessment setting out the risks from current and predicted impacts of climate change on the UK.  This latest synthesis report identifies 56 urgency categories of risks and opportunities for the UK that climate change presents. 

Let’s start with the weather…

The good news is that those beavering away at the Met Office on the projections appear to be spot on with their predictions. The expectation of milder winters and hotter summers for the UK have increased in line with global observations, sea levels have risen by 15-20cm since 1900 and the recent episodes of severe and sustained rainfall are consistent with our climate change projections.  The not so great news is that if the projections are correct, then our cities, particularly the built environment which is not currently required by law or standard to take account of and adapt to climate change, are woefully under-prepared.

Key climate change risks requiring urgent action identified by the CCRA

The top three priorities for action, flooding, overheating and water supply are risks we are already experiencing manifestations of now.  At the CCRA launch event Lord Krebs specifically identified concerns about the number of buildings and key infrastructure still being built in high flood risk areas and also the risks presented to health and well-being from overheating of buildings.  These risks are brought together with current and future socioeconomic trends in the technical chapter 5 focused on “People and the built environmentwhich should be compulsory reading for every built environment professional.

The chapter covers the opportunities from warmer weather, urban air quality, overheating in buildings, water supply, flood and coastal risk, moisture risks from flooding, risks posed by high winds, structural stability, historic and listed structures and gardens, infectious diseases and pests, population health and health protection. The message is clear, we cannot continue to build and plan our cities without regard for their impact on the components that underpin basic human needs, particularly adequate shelter, food and water.

Another key risk identified is that to natural capital.  This includes soils which literally underpin cities. It is easy to forget about the valuable infrastructure lying beneath the ground.   For the built environment community, contaminated land, how it has been treated and how it responds to a changing climate is vital knowledge.  The ARCC network hosted an event with CIRIA last summer and discovered that whilst flood risk was a consideration in contaminated land assessment, there are still some knowledge gaps in terms of the complex relationship between climate change, soil moisture, groundwater and contaminant mobilisation.

We have plenty of knowledge about what interventions need to be carried out to our homes and cities to make them more resilient from the EPSRC funded ARCC network of flooding, overheating and smart adapting cities, the former Zero Carbon Hub’s overheating work programme, the Flooding& Coastal Erosion Risk Management network, the Innovate UK Design for Future Climate competition, the BRE Resilience Centre research programme, the London Climate Change Partnership and JRF’s Climate Just facility to name but a few of the many resources freely available.

Should we be planning for a 4ºC world?

In the Q&A after the launch, it was suggested that planning and built environment decisions should be considering a high emissions scenario with global temperatures rising by 4ºC (great map for world from Met Office here), meanwhile still working internationally with partners under the Paris Agreement (which resulted from COP21 back in December) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent global average temperature rise from breaching a 2ºC  rise on pre-industrial levels. When it is not just capital investment, but human lives at stake, there’s something to be said for taking a lead from our emergency services colleagues: plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Our built environment is fundamental in determining the risk magnitude not just of the top three risks identified in the CCRA, but of those for many other sectors, particularly health and social care.  We, as a collective of professionals and citizens, have the ability to affect which way the magnitude dial swings between now and the next risk assessment exercise.  Whilst we could continue Business as Usual and intensify many of these risks, the extensive membership of cross-sector groups like this CIBSE Resilient Cities group indicates a professional appetite for tackling the challenges presented head on and building to take advantage of the opportunities too.

Being leaders rather than laggards could have commercial advantage

The UK is in prime position to lead on deploying the adaptive pathways and adaptive management techniques needed for improving the resilience of cities. We have the understanding of how our changing climate might impact not just on sectors, but also the inter-dependencies between them.  There's some excellent work that could underpin this by UCL who are working on the HEW project for inter-dependencies between housing, energy and well-being and by the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium regarding infrastructure inter-dependencies. 
Adaptive pathways and adaptive management approaches allow for an agreed approach to coordinate activity, achieving adaptation through sequencing and structured approaches. They work at policy levels but also at organisation levels, as a way to work with existing working cycles, for instance existing refurbishment and maintenance plans.  There will be also an increasing driver from investors to at least understand, if not adapt to reduce risks from climate change. The world's largest ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s now assess climate and energy transition risk factors which will have  credit implications for corporate and infrastructure debt instruments.  

The CIBSE Resilient Cities Group brings together cross-sector researchers and practitioners with a shared interest in making our cities more resilient to a changing climate.  It provides an opportunity for knowledge exchange and horizon scanning, but also brings together those willing to apply these ideas in practice. Now, more than ever,  we need this type of collective pooling of knowledge to start informing mainstream policy and practice.  Help us to do so, join us!

Briony Turner is a PhD student at King’s College London and is Knowledge Exchange Manager for the ARCC network.