Climate Crisis: Is it all about behaviour change?

BEFS Policy Lead, Ailsa Macfarlane, explores the implications of climate change goals for policy in the built environment.

The delivery of Rescue & Reuse to my desk sped-up a train of thought. It arrived the same week the Committee on Climate Change released their most recent report. This document has been much lauded by Governments, committees, climate-change organisations and industry. I’m not here to disagree with the premise – but there is a caveat, one included by the Committee on Climate Change themselves:

[net-zero 2050] is only possible if clear, stable and well-designed policies to reduce emissions further are introduced across the economy without delay. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.

The report is clear, there is not one-solution to achieving the aims set-out. The approaches will need to be integrated across all aspects of our economy and society. This has been echoed and endorsed by the Scottish Government’s recent statement: [we] will be placing climate change at the heart of everything we do. … it will be at the core of our next Programme for Government and Spending Review.

Recently BEFS, and the Tenement Maintenance Working Group (TMWG) have responded to a number of consultations which connect our built environment and the environmental crisis. The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland has rightly declared housing as infrastructure – a step which is hopefully useful from a resourcing, as well as climate, perspective. And, in responding to Housing Beyond 2021, TMWG noted: It is regularly forecast that 80% of existing homes will still be in use in 2050 and it is therefore imperative that these be maintained in good condition to meet both fuel poverty and carbon emission targets.

In a response to Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme, BEFS championed the importance of our historic built environment as resilient, but needing, as all buildings do, appropriate maintenance; this, and adaptation, retro-fitting and reuse (many categories of which are covered in inspiring case studies within Rescue & Reuse) will enable the historic environment to play its essential role as an adaptable resource, and a source of embodied energy, capable of mitigating against negative impact on our climate. These benefits can only be fully realised should the appropriate skills, resources, and polices, be in place.

It is obviously not just our existing built environment which will have a role to play, but that which we choose to build. The Scottish Government global climate emergency statement is clear that the current Planning (Scotland) Bill will not be reworked in light of recent reports, but: the next National Planning Framework and review of the Scottish Planning Policy will include considerable focus on how the planning system can support our climate change goals.

So many of the issues connecting the built environment to climate-crisis are about enabling and promoting genuine sustainability. There are policy levers which could help: VAT parity, EPC assessment which is accurate to building type, return to use of empty-homes, community empowerment, HES Policy and Managing Change guidance, and planning legislation itself.

I started by asking if it’s all about behaviour change, and whilst technologies (new and adaptive) will have a significant part to play, the more important question is, ‘whose behaviour needs to change?’. If we need radical change, then the policies set by elected leadership need to reflect this. Much like reducing smoking and cigarette purchases, or increasing safety in cars with seat-belts – the behaviour change necessary was ‘pushed’ via legislation. The difficult choices need to be made – at legislative as well as personal levels. Our extant built-environment is most-often found in places which are already connected – part of a greater intersection of policies, people and places. These places can of course be made more efficient – both in relation to how the buildings operate, but also how we live our lives: consuming fewer resources, producing less CO2 emissions.

Carlo Scarpa wrote, ‘Our duty is to give buildings a new lease of life so that they may be able to live today and tomorrow’. Perhaps our collective duty now is to give buildings a new lease of life so that we may be able to live today and tomorrow.