Translating climate solutions for everyday lives

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Big news in the climate change world recently! With the EU and India signing on last week, 74 parties to the Paris Agreement (and counting) representing an estimated 58.82% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the agreement. This means it will now officially enter into force on the 4th of November 2016.

While the agreement isn’t perfect, its speedy ratification is great news. The momentum and united support behind it and the symbolism of global cooperation are powerful and motivating, particularly in the face of a threat as complex and massive as climate change. But for the majority of us, the memory of COP21 is likely long gone, replaced with Brexit, elections and our day-to-day concerns.

For those who live in places like the UK or the middle of the US, where climate threats are just as real, but much subtler than hurricanes, sea level rise and starving polar bears, the need to translate global goals on climate to local action may not seem as critical.

As built environment professionals, not those in front-line communities facing climate-triggered displacement, at international negotiation tables or out protesting against new mines, what can we be doing to truly “address climate change?”

KLH has done a lot of work on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London to deliberately incorporate both climate change mitigation and adaptation measures into large-scale development. Some of this has involved pulling together efforts that were already happening in the name of sustainability, health and comfort, energy efficiency or biodiversity and ensuring that they addressed the broader pictures of carbon impact and climate risk response. Many other measures were instituted directly as responses to anticipated climate impacts over time.

To reduce the contribution the development makes to climate change, we are massively reducing carbon emissions by designing very energy efficient building fabric and services, then further reducing to zero regulated carbon emissions through district heating, PVs and carbon offsetting in the local community. We are also reducing embodied carbon and energy of the building materials by 15-20% by using materials more efficiently, substituting materials and using recycled materials. The development also promotes public and active transportation and reduces potable water use which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions.

To adapt to the effects of climate change in London, we looked at the potential hazards—such as flooding, overheating, extreme wind, urban heat island effect and water scarcity—their likelihood and severity and the risk for the development. Based on that, we developed cross-cutting strategies to help mitigate and adapt to those impacts. These strategies included green infrastructure, water sensitive design principles, designing for thermal comfort, resilient construction measures and building adaptive capacity.

Even when projects attempt to address climate on site, it’s important not to overstate the impacts of those efforts. Zero Carbon doesn’t literally mean no carbon is emitted. Climate Positive doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative impacts on climate. PVs on every roof won’t help much if the building materials used to make those roofs has a carbon intensive production process. The use of some sustainable building materials may have negative impacts for energy efficiency or overheating risk. But even if one development doesn’t solve it all, the individual measures can still add up to real benefits.

Not everything we’ve instituted on our projects was driven by a desire to address climate change. There are many strategies incorporated in good design practice, which positively contribute to climate change adaption – and that’s where the real impact will come from.

It’s hard to convince some developers, designers, builders or even occupants to care about climate change as a driver. It’s important that whether by regulation, best practice design, long-term cost saving, risk management or unique selling point, measures that reduce carbon emissions and help communities adapt to more extreme weather become the norm. Only then will all developments be climate responsive projects, contributing to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

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