10,500 days and counting – there’s no sugar coating the prescription for carbon neutrality

31 March 2021 / By Debbie Hobbs

The clock is ticking, and it’s now just over 10,500 days until 2050 – the date when the UK and over 110 other countries around the world have committed to a legally binding agreement on Net Zero carbon emissions.

The scale of this global challenge is immense and remember that the prize for these herculean efforts is limiting the warming of the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period. So we’re talking about slowing the trajectory of the warming that we’ve already caused, not reversing the damaging impacts of unchecked temperature rises of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade resulting in 20 of the 22 hottest days on record occurring in the last 20 years.

The built environment and construction activity combined are responsible for generating 39 percent of all global carbon emissions, with 28 percent attributed to operational emissions of buildings and 11 percent the embodied carbon in materials and construction processes. To achieve Net Zero by 2050, the target we collectively need to hit is a reduction in energy consumption from the built environment of 80 percent.”

The impact on sectors varies enormously, so the scale of the challenge for the commercial office sector is greater than that of agriculture, but is significantly less than that of the healthcare sector, which alone currently accounts for 4.5 percent of UK carbon emissions each year. Research from our pioneering Sustainable Buildings Monitor survey – due for publication in May, shows that our current healthcare estate of circa 28,000 properties (England and Wales) uses 617 kWH/m2 of energy – the overwhelming majority of this total (92 percent) within hospital settings. This total needs to fall by about 80 percent to achieve Net Zero.

Recognising the importance of its impact on the UK’s climate commitment, the NHS has already defined a pathway to Net Zero, which it acknowledges will not be easy and will require significant investment and ambition to achieve. The government’s commitment to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 will certainly play a role in narrowing this carbon gap if procurement focuses on Net Zero as a primary driver; however the biggest challenge is inevitably the legacy healthcare estate – and remember the much repeated statistic that 80 percent of buildings in 2050 currently exist today.

“So, we’re going to need to refurbish and retrofit much of our physical healthcare assets to make them match fit for 2050 – but where to start? I’d argue that ‘thinking differently’ could be the best way we tackle this monumental challenge. A major positive in this regard is the recent publication of the Construction Playbook – the public sector’s new procurement framework that embeds much of the long-term and strategic approach to efficient spatial planning and delivery, with a primary objective to slash carbon emissions.”

The Playbook may well prove a radical step for many, but we need to push further and faster to achieve the efficiency gains that we need for 2050. Technology will certainly play a role over the next 10,500 days, but actually it’s processes, the right forms of contract and quality controls that will prove instrumental.

We will need to design and construct differently – making greater use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and a Platform approach for Design for Manufacturing and Assembly and Disassembly (P-DfMA+D). Procuring with whole life costs in mind, designing for deconstruction and recovery through nature-based construction solutions and maximising social value outcomes, will all drive the correct behaviours that will normalise our pathway to Net Zero.

“We need to get better at collecting, analysing and acting upon data insights – in fact democratising data and placing it in the hands of those teams that can optimise performance. The continued maintenance of our buildings must become a core priority – monitoring and early interventions to maintain optimum efficiency will dramatically reduce energy consumption and emissions – something ISG is also addressing through our soon to be launched ‘Performing Places’ operational performance system.”

COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly the world can respond to a crisis situation. The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle and isolated, but increasingly self-evident and devastating to a larger proportion of our population with every day and year that passes. We can imagine that new technologies and clean energy sources may be developed to come to our rescue, but the climate commitments made by over 100 of our largest carbon contributors are based in the here and now. 

The healthcare estate is not unique in the significant challenges it faces to decarbonise its operations, especially at a time when we have prioritised even more immediate emergencies. But as the countdown continues, it is incumbent on us all to think and act differently on the investment, procurement, construction and operation of our health assets. Lifetime care isn’t just for people, but for our buildings, our planet and the very survival of every living thing that exists on it.

To find out more on Debbie's thoughts, watch her virtual presentation at the recent leading tech and health event, WIRED Health. Debbie rubbed shoulders with key speakers from the likes of PIXAR, Harvard University and the University of Cambridge to explore and map the future of health. 

Author: Debbie Hobbs

Group Director for Sustainable Business, ISG


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