Join the right side of history, architects are urged by environmental lawyer and advisor at COP26 Farhana Yamin, keynote speaker at RIBA’s Built Environment Summit
It’s time for architects to step up, according to Farhana Yamin, environmental lawyer, climate change and development policy expert and keynote speaker at this week’s Built Environment Summit, organised by the RIBA in partnership with Architects Declare.
‘At some point there has to be a cleave in the profession for those who are aiding and abetting what amounts to great harm,’ she said ahead of the event, urging architects to instead ‘be part of the right side of history’.
Rather than waiting for government policy on carbon emissions to drive change, architects need to use their expertise to make ‘far more ambitious and courageous decisions’, and encourage their clients to do the same. Every single decision that locks in more emissions needs to be questioned, she said.
She feels that the leading role designers and architects can play in ‘transitioning to a more benign world’ by using their specialist knowledge is not always being well communicated.
‘We have to design buildings and cities that ensure equity and inclusion and zero carbon and a safer, cleaner environment for people to live in,’ she said.
Certainly Yamin herself has stepped up throughout her distinguished career, advising leaders and ministers on climate negotiations for 30 years. A climate summit veteran, she is widely credited with playing a key role in getting the goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century into the 2015 Paris Agreement. Frustrated with the pace of change, she became an activist, co-ordinating Extinction Rebellion’s political strategy during much of 2019, and getting arrested for gluing herself to Shell HQ’s offices. She is adviser to the Climate Vulnerable Forum and visiting professor at University of the Arts, London.
She calls on architects to question and challenge their clients and their briefs and be prepared to accept the discomfort of turning down jobs rather than working with those who ‘are deliberately locking in emissions’. We shouldn’t, she says, have the right to freedom of all clients at the expense of young people, of nature, and of vulnerable communities around the world who have not themselves contributed to climate change.
Despite her frustrations at the slow pace of change, she does have some hope that government policy will respond – if pushed, educated and lobbied hard enough.
We need to go out and seek change and not be neutral. It’s the future of our planet and our children’s future. We need to step up
‘We need to go out and seek change and not be neutral,’ she says. ‘It's the future of our planet and our children’s future. We need to step up.’
Yamin is attending next week’s COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow (starting 1 November) as adviser to Climate Vulnerable Forum chair Bangladesh. She wants to see G20 countries put in all of what they pledged to help vulnerable countries tackle climate change back in 2009. And she’d like to see more ambitious targets set in the National Determined Contributions, such as limiting global warming to 1.5°C rather than the Paris Agreement aim of well below 2°C.
Other speakers at this week’s Built Environment Summit include Cristina Gamboa, chief executive officer of the World Green Building Council, Martina Otto, head of cities and lifestyles at United Nations Environment, and Buro Happold director of sustainability Maria Smith, who is also editor of the RIBA’s Built for the Environment report. The summit aims to share innovative practice and interdisciplinary thinking, and in doing so provide inspiration to drive significant change in behaviour.
Farhana Yamin is a keynote speaker at the Built Environment Summit, organised by the RIBA in partnership with Architects Declare, 28-29 October, virtually and in person at RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD