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Integrated Sustainable Development a Stepping Stone to Climate Change Mitigation

The impact of the UK climate change agenda on the built environment continues to generate regulation and policy, which in turn, drives the developing aspects of sustainability and cultural change within the engineering and construction sector.

I have been in engineering for over 18 years and in the last five to six years have noticed that the UK’s global and national commitment to these issues has created a permanent yet continuously evolving landscape that we must all adapt to, through detailed understanding and innovation.

The UK government has established its commitment to addressing climate change through a multitude of various legal, fiscal and voluntary instruments including building regulations, white papers, planning policy and carbon reduction commitment, to name just a few.

As one of the multitude of built environment professionals, representing operational disciplines within the construction industry, I believe we all need to raise our game and align our aspirations in relation to these developments. Unless we don’t all adopt a more “cradle to cradle” viewpoint, and start working in an increasingly more co-operative manner, with common goals and integrated drivers facilitating holistic adaptation and mitigation of climate change, our future is far from guaranteed.

In the 2008 budget, the government announced its ambition that all new non-domestic buildings should be “zero carbon” from 2019 and new public sector buildings to be zero carbon from 2018. Just as for homes (zero carbon from 2016), a zero carbon non-domestic building will be one which is highly energy efficient and which uses on-site low and zero carbon technologies to meet an overall carbon compliance standard. Its remaining emissions will be covered by other measures called “allowable solutions.”

Non-domestic buildings account for around 17 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions and addressing this portion will go towards meeting the UK’s carbon reduction targets, drive innovation and help make the UK less vulnerable to energy supply threats.

These onerous proposals cover all new buildings and will principally be delivered through the developing building regulations. Following another change to Part L of the Building Regulations last year, with more developments on the way in 2013, 2016 and 2019, we must look to delivering these zero carbon targets on a holistic basis. Experience shows that, as members of a design team, we must all go‘a step further to achieve even minimum compliance and I am convinced that only by true multi-disciplinary cooperation under common and clear goals can we achieve the levels of sustainability and efficiency necessary to meet these developing requirements.

In July 2009 the UK government announced its strategy for meeting carbon emissions targets, including a massive increase in renewable energy. The UK “Low Carbon Transition” plan sets out how the UK will meet the cut in emissions proposed in the 2009 budget, of 34 percent on 1990 levels by 2020 and on to 80 percent by 2050 as defined in the Climate Change Act.

As part of this plan, the Renewable Energy strategy recommits the government to a significant increase in renewable electric power generation going up from approximately 5 percent today to 30 percent by 2020. Without significant investment in the UK infrastructure and manufacturing base I believe this target may be a significant challenge, particularly in an environment of fiscal austerity. If there ever was a time for specific governmental guidance and clarity of policy, it is now and I fear the current administration may be struggling for grip on these issues.

To date, a typical barrier to this development potential has been the planning process. However, the government has published the draft PPS Planning for a “Low Carbon Future in a Changing Climate” supplement. The new draft planning policy statement combines and updates the existing planning policy statements on climate change (PPS1 Supplement) and renewable energy (PPS22). The intent of merging the documents is to provide a more streamlined and focussed document for planning for renewable energy and climate change and to clarify the relationship between planning and other regimes such as building regulations – a welcomed strategy.

The consultation document reiterates the government’s “target” for new homes to be zero carbon from 2016 and “ambition” for new non-domestic buildings to be zero carbon from 2019. It places key themes including renewable energy, low carbon emissions, decentralised/district community systems (and the integration of waste management), co-location of potential heat suppliers/users and resilience to climate change at the heart of the planning agenda. The policies within the document seek to ensure that development, from its broad location to its detailed layout and design, supports these key themes. Again, experience suggests that this can be achieved, ideally through a truly integrated design team working closely with an enlightened client and a flexible Local Authority.

Although many of the steps to achieve the carbon reduction targets are “compulsory,” there are also incentives available through the introduction of Feed-in-Tariffs (FITs) and the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), planned for introduction in 2011. These schemes will provide financial support to micro-generation projects including wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal panels, and wood boilers.  This will dramatically improve the financial viability of onsite renewables at business sites and potentially allow a significant contribution to the carbon reduction commitment and corporate social responsibility targets.

I believe these incentives will not only provide financial support for the implementation of appropriate technologies but will enhance understanding of the underlying issues. Our experience suggests that new business streams are developing around FITs & RHI, allowing common minded entrepreneurs with free land (or indeed roof space!) or renewable technology manufacturing/supply skills to combine in generating energy on a significant scale. I hope the government maintains investment and support for these initiatives, allowing associated markets to develop and assist in the UK’s financial recovery.

It is impossible to address the multitude of issues within the sustainability agenda in this brief paper, and the above only highlights some of those most current and pertinent within the built environment. I take some comfort from witnessing positive cultural changes taking place within our industry but I believe this transformation needs to accelerate considerably to, at the very least, match the onerous regulatory and legislative domestic UK standards and global demands.

If this does not happen and we, the engineering and construction sector, don’t take a more co-ordinated, multi-disciplined approach, adapting to a developing and constantly fluctuating environment, we will fall woefully short of meeting not only the UK governmental targets but, more critically, the requirements essential for a sustainable low carbon future.

Andy Briggs is Technical Director of WYG, a global consultancy specialising in infrastructure and advisory services, working in partnership with clients in over 40 countries throughout the world. WYG is focused on providing high quality, value added professional services by optimising its skills in Buildings & Critical Infrastructure, Transport Solutions, Risk & Assurance Services and Energy & Sustainability.

Andy Briggs
Andy Briggs is Technical Director of WYG, a global consultancy specialising in infrastructure and advisory services, working in partnership with clients in over 40 countries throughout the world. WYG is focused on providing high quality, value added professional services by optimising its skills in Buildings & Critical Infrastructure, Transport Solutions, Risk & Assurance Services and Energy & Sustainability.
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