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Declaring a climate emergency – two years on the road to net zero

Alan Vallance

RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance reflects on recent activity and maps out what’s next on the road to net zero

Protesting on climate emergency.
Protesting on climate emergency. Credit: Charlotte Collins

On 29 June 2019 the RIBA declared a climate emergency and committed to an action plan that would place architects and the built environment at the forefront of a zero-carbon future. Two years on from that declaration, I want to reflect on our progress and outline our plans to continue to support and encourage members to lead the fight against climate change.

Earlier this month we re-launched our 2030 Climate Challenge with revised – in some cases tighter – targets for newbuild and major refurbishment projects to reduce embodied carbon, operational energy and potable water consumption. While some figures have been adjusted, the core message remains the same – we must take action now to significantly reduce the resource and carbon consumption of new build projects.

With the update, we have refined the targets to better align ourselves with other key industry bodies, and introduced sector-specific targets for schools in addition to those for commercial offices and homes.

Some might think the targets for embodied carbon reduction are less ambitious, but that’s not the case. Based on the data and knowledge gained by the sector over the past two years, the targets better reflect embodied carbon benchmarks. They are just as ambitious, but more realistic – and they now also align with mutually-agreed industry standards.

The 2030 targets for energy consumption and potable water use have not changed, but you will see that some sector-specific 2025 targets are slightly more challenging, and the trajectory towards net zero (aiming for net zero, or better, whole life carbon for new and retrofitted buildings) has not changed either. That’s because the next nine years are critical: we have less than a decade to ensure we make significant carbon reductions and reduce the impact of the built environment to limit global warming to below 1.5°C.

You are urged to take a look, share with your colleagues, discuss with your practice directors and join other chartered practices who have already signed-up.

The refined targets are also accompanied by ‘How to talk to Clients’, a guide that includes a template client letter seeking commitment to provide operational data 12 months after completion; and another guide, aimed at clients, that outlines the benefits of supporting the Climate Challenge’s ambitions from their perspective.

All signatories are asked to share their projects’ operational performance data, which will be anonymised and used to grow industry knowledge. This will enable us to track progress and provide the support you need. 

Over the past two years we have produced a series of sustainability guidance documents. Most recently, to help execute and embed a more outcomes-based approach, we’ve created the Plan for Use Guide (2021), which sets out actions to deliver a sustainable built environment based on evidence, data and lessons learned. We revised the Plan of Work in 2020 to encourage consideration of sustainable design at each work stage and to ensure projects are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals we have produced the Sustainable Outcomes Guide (2019).

Protesting on climate emergency.
Protesting on climate emergency. Credit: Unsplash

To help clients and the wider public realise the significance of sustainable design we have also overhauled our competitions criteria, commissioned a new series of books including Everything Needs to Change, and made sure all core RIBA events reference the climate emergency.

Lobbying the government to make policy changes at national level has and will continue to be a critical part of our action plan. Alongside responding to several consultations and giving evidence to parliamentary committees, we have produced several reports on topics ranging from Post Occupancy Evaluation to decarbonising the housing stock. Our research outlines clear policy recommendations and informs our regular meetings with civil servants and members of Parliament. A few months ago we also co-ordinated a joint letter to the government from more than 20 built environment and climate action organisations highlighting serious concerns about the proposed Future Buildings Standard. Cross-industry collaboration is key.

What’s next?

2021 is a critical year and we're continuing to build, at pace, on the progress already made. In November, alongside Architects Declare, we’re going to co-ordinate the first ever Built Environment Summit – a research project culminating in a two-day virtual conference – and, at COP26, we will help to deliver the Built Environment Virtual Pavilion. This activity will sit alongside ongoing research, resources and events – many of which are already under way – to support and encourage our 2030 Climate Challenge adopters.  

To conclude, I want to reiterate the urgency of the task at hand. The built environment needs us to lead the fight against climate change, and that means stepping up and changing the way we operate. As architects – and future architects – you have the education and skills needed to drive the sector towards net zero, and we are here to support you. I urge you to show your ability and commitment by signing up to the 2030 Climate Challenge and attempting to meet these targets on your projects now.

The open call for climate action research to help shape the Built Environment Summit closes on 5 July. Find out more here


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