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Construction in an era of climate emergency

Constructing and operating our homes and businesses currently accounts for about half of the UK’s carbon emissions. So tackling the climate emergency, requires us to urgently and dramatically reduce emissions in the construction sector. This is why Carbon Neutral Cambridge is assisting the Cambridge Forum for the Construction Industry (CFCI) in organising the “Cambridge Climate Emergency Conference”.

Greater Cambridge needs all new buildings to be designed to benefit our communities and to safeguard our futures. It’s vital that all of these new buildings are constructed such that they can operate at net zero carbon by 2030 at the latest. Unless we take this bold but achievable step, new buildings will simply be expanding the existing pool of buildings which require deep retrofit in order to meet our climate goals.

At the Climate Emergency Conference we’ll be hearing from practitioners as to what constitutes a “net zero” building. There will be a welcome emphasis on the need to consider embodied carbon (ie the emissions associated with constructing the building) and not simply considering the emissions associated with operating the building. Future buildings will need to be part of a circular economy, which means reusing materials from demolished buildings. It will also be increasingly important to design buildings such that they can be more easily constructed, modified and disassembled.

Many millions of UK buildings will require retrofitting if they are to operate at net zero emissions by 2050. One of the most ambitious non-domestic retrofits in the UK to Passivhaus standards is currently taking place in central Cambridge. Conference attendees will have an early opportunity to learn more about the challenges posed by this project, courtesy of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership.

The next Local Plan for greater Cambridge will be a litmus test of how seriously planners and politicians are taking the climate emergency. With this in mind, we’re delighted that Sam Hunter-Jones from Client Earth will be on hand to explain the legal obligations that the Local Plan has with respect to emissions reductions. We’re also pleased to be welcoming the participation of Paul Frainer (Strategy, Cambridge Shared Planning) and the Leaders of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire councils.

Construction in an era of climate emergency is not simply about technical challenges. It requires a cooperative way of working whereby communities, planners, policy officers, politicians, design teams and developers will all have a role to play. One aim of the “Cambridge Climate Emergency Conference” is to bring together some of these local practitioners, so as to help foster this mentality in our region.

This article by Tony Eva was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 26 February 2020.