Anyone for Spanish lessons? Adapting to climate change

I joined an interesting group meeting at CIRIA last week – a workshop on climate change adaptation in the built environment. This was not a discussion about how to halt or even reverse climate change through using less energy and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (that’s mitigation).

No, this is how to deal with the effects of climate change that are already “locked in”. As Gerry Metcalfe from the UK Climate Impacts Programme explained, up until about 2050, temperature rise is influenced by emissions that have already taken place, it is pre-determined and inevitable.

Beyond 2050 temperature rise will be determined by current and future emissions. The predictions range from 1.5 to 6.0 degrees Centigrade.

Climate and weather are often confused, particularly by critics of global warming science. Paradoxically, most adaptation to climate change will be required to deal with extreme weather events, such as flooding. Converting predictions about the future climate into the likely impact on weather is problematic.

However, the direction of travel is clear. We will experience hotter, drier summers; milder, wetter winters and rising sea levels. As well as these changes in annual and seasonal averages, we are likely to see changes in the extremes, with more very hot days and more intense downpours.

Mitigation may grab the headlines but many people are working away on adaptation measures, particularly under the auspices of the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change (http://www.theccc.org.uk/about-the-ccc/adaptation-sub-committee). Last autumn the ASC produced the first national assessment of how well prepared the UK is to cope with the impacts of climate change through adopting measures to adapt to climate change.

Earlier last year, the Technology Strategy Board published a report by architect Bill Gething titled Design for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment. This presents the key design challenges for adapting to the future climate, and explores how to interpret the scientific climate data for building design projects. http://www.innovateuk.org/ourstrategy/innovationplatforms/lowimpactbuilding/design-for-future-climate-report-.ashx

Adaptation issues include thermal comfort, flood risk management and the treatment of water, as well as structural design. Unlike the threat from the sea or rivers, the risk of surface water flooding is less likely to be on the radar of building owners and operators.

A rise in average temperatures could make some buildings very uncomfortable to work in, although relatively simple interventions such as improving cross-ventilation and pre-cooling will help. As with mitigation, facilities management will have an important role in adaptation.

The group concluded that several things would have to change for adaptation to become embedded. Built environment professionals and property owners will need risk assessment rather than just a bald restating of facts, however alarming. The Building Regulations should be reviewed to include adaptation. The ancillary benefits of adaptation measures should be highlighted. Construction training needs to be rebalanced away from new build to refurbishment and maintenance. Technical training for “non-technical managers” will be important. Knowledgeable experts are, of course, vital but more of us will need to know how buildings, systems and people interact.

Of course, we don’t have to wait for extreme weather events to show us what adaptation to climate change might mean. The countries of southern Europe have climates (and cultures) which our own may come to resemble. We can learn much from them on how buildings can be constructed, occupied and managed.

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Apparently one major property owner has already been thinking about climate change and their first response is a legal one – amending references in leases to internal temperatures from absolute maximums, to “relative to external temperature” measures.

A message from Ecobuild

It’s not often your day starts with Bianca Jagger talking about the intimate connection between environmental and humanitarian crises and ends with a discussion on the finer points of Display Energy Certificates. But this was Ecobuild at London’s ExCeL yesterday and the scope of the event is sweeping.

The economy may be languishing and the construction sector battered but you wouldn’t know it looking at the huge halls, filled with 1,300 exhibitors and browsing the programme of seminars, lectures conference sessions and demonstrations.

Of course, the news earlier this week that Interbuild (rebranded Built Environment Solutions & Technologies) has been cancelled this year tells a slightly different story. For many construction sector firms sustainability may be the one bright spot in an uncertain landscape.

Never underestimate the power of celebrity – it was standing room only for Jagger’s talk. Those who had not heard her before would have been impressed by her quiet, persuasive delivery. Although best known for her work on human rights and social justice, she clearly knows her way around the science and politics of climate change.

Explaining why she was speaking at Ecobuild, Jagger argued that the problems caused by the failure of financial systems, mass population movement and changing climate are interrelated – economic and environmental crises are symptoms of the same problem. She said that, because of plentiful supplies of energy and building materials and a drive towards mass production, buildings had lost their climate and regional variations. The result? Global architectural uniformity and buildings with “ever shorter useful lives”.

In a political passage she said that David Cameron has “reneged on promises to make his Government the greenest ever.” She said there is a political bias against renewable technologies but the costs (almost entirely for technology) will fall. Even if it costs 3% of global GDP (the upper end of estimates) to rebuild economies around low carbon, it pales into insignificance against the cost of doing nothing.

In a cogently argued but heartfelt speech she finished with a simple question: “We are now entering the twilight of the fossil fuel age. We need to think in terms of localised societies. Are we ready to change the way we live?”

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The climate and energy secretary Chris Huhne may be facing flak over his review of the feed-in tariff and the lack of detail for the Green Deal but in a speech to CentreForum (http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/ch_speech/ch_speech.aspx) , also delivered yesterday, he seemed to share Bianca Jagger’s analysis. “It would be crazy not to prepare for a low carbon future,” he said.