Devastating floods lay bare urgent need for climate-resilient buildings

The UK should aim to ensure all buildings and infrastructure are resilient to climate impacts by 2030, argues UKGBC's John Alker
Sandbags Outside House On Flooded Road

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November 25, 2019

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“Almost biblical” was the description used by residents hit by recent torrential rains and widespread flooding in the Midlands and the North. It is yet again, if one were needed, a reminder of the urgency of tackling global emissions. It is also a reminder that even if we are successful in doing so, there is already climate change locked in to the system – and adaptation must be a critical priority.

The built environment is frequently the most visible and tangible physical setting for the playing out of climate impacts. We are seeing this with growing frequency – homes flooded, businesses closed, people left without power – not to mention problems associated with overheating in increasingly warm summers.

With prescient timing, on 8 November, UKGBC launched a long-planned rallying cry for action on climate resilience in the built environment. It takes the form of a simple statement of ambition, around which we hope businesses and policy-makers can be galvanised: “By 2030, all buildings and infrastructure will, throughout their lifetime, be climate resilient and maximise environmental net gains, through the prioritisation of nature-based solutions.”

It’s a simple message, but think about it for a moment, and the full implications kick in. This calls for a radical re-imagining of our homes, workplaces and infrastructure to not only better manage future climate impacts, but do so hand-in-hand with addressing the ecological and biodiversity crisis.

Imagine a world in which urban environments are cooled through networks of tree canopies, rather than air conditioning units; rainwater is managed, stored and filtered through green roofs, vegetated ditches, ponds and wetlands; and flood defences are built using trees and wetlands rather than engineered structures.

Such nature-based solutions can provide benefits to ecosystems whilst improving health and wellbeing, sequestrating carbon and providing social value. They can be designed in ways which address the need for our built environments to both adapt to climate change and enhance nature for the benefit of people, planet and business.

Of course, the challenge as ever is the ‘how’. Policy is moving in the right direction with some of the principles in the Environment Bill, but this is going to need far greater policy and regulatory impetus – nationally and locally. Climate resilience needs to be central to the planning system, and local authorities need to be required – and resourced – to effectively implement local climate action plans.

Meanwhile this has moved rapidly up the agenda of business – from insurers to investors to developers to designers – yet far more needs to be done. Mandating reporting by listed companies and large asset owners on climate-related risks and opportunities would be a good start. However, the sheer scale of the challenge and the complexity of the actions needed, and the variety of stakeholders involved, requires something a bit different.

Following extensive consultation, alongside the ambition statement we have fired the starting gun on an industry roadmap for climate resilience and nature-based solutions. It is only with a shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities – and a shared commitment to the interventions and actions required – will we have a hope in hell of achieving this.

I hope as many as possible will join us on this journey.

This blog was first published in Business Green on 15 November, and is available here.