Building resilience for net-zero: adaptation in a carbon-constrained climate

Tim Taylor
Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is an urgent priority if the UK is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.

Imagine a future where the UK is a global leader in green energy and sustainable business. Where our homes and transport systems run on clean power and public buildings generate all the energy they need. With many countries including the UK having declared a climate emergency – and indeed many individual UK local authorities – let’s hope our newly elected administration will make this a priority.

Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is an important part of the plan for the UK to be net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. We have a choice on how we act today to limit carbon emissions (i.e. our approach to climate change "mitigation"). However, the changes that are already locked into the climate system by historic emissions mean that we have no choice but to adapt. Our approach to net-zero buildings needs climate resilience, by embedding capacity for adaptation when implementing a strategy for mitigation.

These issues have been at the forefront of my recent work on climate change adaptation with the Department for Education and CIBSE School Design Group, which I presented at the CIBSE Build2Perform event in November 2019. The project seeks to improve our understanding of the risks of higher summer temperatures on the school building stock, through the use of environmental monitoring and computer modelling.  

Climate change means that temperatures in 30-50 years’ time will be very different from today, and the Met Office predicts that summer heatwaves like those experienced in 2018 may become the norm by 2050. The increased risk of overheating will impact comfort and productivity, and have implications for the long-term maintenance and lifecycle of buildings. Our work on schools will examine the most efficient and cost-effective adaptation options, and how these might be integrated in the design of future schools.

"Imagine a future where the UK is a global leader in green energy and sustainable business."

This is just one example of Faithful+Gould’s extensive experience of working with public and private sector clients to deliver change projects. Undoubtedly there are challenges. Many of our clients, regardless of sector, lack the necessary data relating to their estates and may not have a sufficient understanding of the current condition of their assets – this is a barrier to effective planning for emissions reductions. Maintenance backlogs are very common in an under-resourced estate and the installation of new technology can seem less of a priority. Although a range of funding mechanisms are available for the introduction of emissions reduction measures, successfully accessing these and calculating any associated payback criteria can be confusing. We frequently support clients with all these issues.

Our team understands the drivers and constraints large portfolio holders face, and the levers by which we can steer successful project outcomes. To adapt buildings to climate change, we can encourage behavioural change in the way occupants use buildings, we can review management and operational practices to reduce risks and we can invest in improvements to the building and its microclimate. Ideally these considerations will be explored at portfolio level, and then at individual asset level where variables such as location, different building types and local operations can be included.

Preparing buildings for net-zero and a wider UK energy systems transition requires a strategic approach, informed by a detailed understanding of an organisation's building assets and the latest technology innovations and policy developments. But technological solutions to the climate emergency are just one part of the puzzle. The pace and cost of delivery needed are among the biggest hurdles to realising the scale of change needed by 2050.

The complexities we face in developing a response to the climate emergency can feel daunting. We will need to embrace new models of working to thrive in a carbon-constrained world. Our Strategic Asset Management team has the experience and capability to support you in finding the way forward.

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