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After coronavirus, the climate

Adrian Dobson

The climate emergency might seem a distant threat compared to the immediate pandemic, but it is a potentially greater issue for the planet

Architects making their voices heard at Global Climate Strike 2019.
Architects making their voices heard at Global Climate Strike 2019. Credit: Charlotte Collins

Amid uncertain workloads and architects’ practices struggling for survival during the coronavirus lockdown, it’s comforting to hope we will return to the safety of normality as soon as possible. But what really is that ‘norm’, and do we really want to return to it?

Even as we navigate this crisis, even as we see our livelihoods and businesses come under threat, we cannot put aside the challenge of sustainability. Global carbon emissions look set to show their biggest annual fall on record. Lockdown might help some countries meet their carbon targets for 2020. But unless there is a permanent change in how we live, in how we design buildings and cities, in how we do business, and in how we spend our free time, come 2021 we will be back chasing the same elusive targets in the same ways. A once in a generation chance to reset our way of life will have been lost.

The long term view, the need to create a sustainable built environment, has informed the policy and strategy of the RIBA for many years. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are integral to this; they provide a holistic description of achieving prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. They provide a path away from the climate emergency and architects can use them to structure their own work. The importance of that holistic approach is thrown into sharp relief now; the SDGs are not just an injunction to climate action, but also a call for good health and wellbeing, for decent work and economic growth, and for industry and innovation.

For architects, we need to pay particular attention to SDG 11: ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. It is not only about reducing carbon emissions, it is also about being clear on what form future buildings, cities and communities will need to take, in light of the current crisis.

As a profession, then, let’s make the most of this unnatural pause and think about what we want the new normality to look like. Let’s make a conscious effort to change attitudes, to change what drives and informs the design of buildings and our choice of materials to create a more sustainable future. This is our opportunity to change the status quo – and we should grasp it with both hands.

The true impact of coronavirus will extend far beyond the inevitable economic effects. The lockdown has had a huge influence on people’s daily lives, and I think we can expect to see some temporary measures – such as working remotely – become more permanent for some.

Protesting for action on climate change.
Protesting for action on climate change. Credit: Markus Spiske

It will require architects to look at the way we build towns, cities and public places in a completely different way: and we must do it sustainably. The Sustainable Development Goals are more important now than ever before, providing us with a blueprint for a sustainable future.

While time might seem distorted now – as day in lockdown drifts into day in lockdown – it is only 10 months ago that the RIBA declared a climate emergency, five months since we launched the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge and three since we published the Sustainable Outcomes Guide and Plan of Work 2020. And we do not plan to stop there.

Sustainability is our key focus for the next 10 years. We’ll be focussing on embedding sustainability and sustainable practice into every project, lobbying the government on post occupancy evaluation and helping our members meet the ambitious 2030 Climate Challenge targets. We mustn’t lose sight of our long-term goals.

While we are living through such extreme conditions – a worldwide pandemic and the ensuing economic damage to overcome – there’s a real risk that we might take our foot off the pedal in our fight against climate change. We’re having to think on our feet to adapt to this rapidly changing world, and some of our biggest challenges are perhaps yet to come – but our experiences and learnings may help us to fight an even bigger battle.

Let’s take this opportunity to improve our knowledge and develop closer more collaborative teams that prioritise the creation of sustainable outcomes in every design decision – so that the old ‘normal’ cannot return.

Adrian Dobson is RIBA executive director of professional services at the RIBA


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