“The bells are ringing”- a reflective piece at a time for reflection Robert Chapman

I don’t know whether it is the time of the year, or purely coincidental but a number of statements and events have coincided to inform this thought piece.

Just to set the scene (as is well known), the Built Environment is responsible for circa 40% of global carbon emissions (construction and building operations contribute to approximately 26% of all GHG emissions and 37% of combustion-related emissions).

Industry Viewpoints: Within the last few weeks, built environment organisations and senior representatives have opined on the seriousness of the situation (the irrefutable science and weather events around the world etc).

  • Newly installed CEO at the UK GBC (Green Building Council) says the built environment needs to decarbonise twice as fast as it is currently doing and that it is “significantly off-track” from the trajectory required to meet the UK’s national net zero commitments.
  • President elect at the RICS cut straight to the point in the institution’s latest Global Sustainability Report (RICS Sustainability Report 20231). Despite all the rhetoric, the industry is still largely reluctant to pursue a low carbon future. Instead, it is more interested in the esteem offered by building certifications and remains more focussed on profit than principles (e.g. the lack of attention paid to embedded carbon and waste).
  • A Leader at CBRE, a national global practice observes that “now is the time to lean into sustainability, not away from it.’’
  • Will Arnold, Institution of Structural Engineers, Head of Climate Change states that embodied Carbon is becoming a more significant part of the whole-life carbon of a new building and must be reduced if we are to achieve a net zero economy. Two-thirds of the embodied carbon is the structure. Furthermore, regulation of carbon would lead to a lot less demolition. Lots of developers are supporting this, including Grosvenor, Stanhope, Landsec and Lendlease.

‘‘Some 50,000 buildings are demolished each year to be replaced by new ones, despite the existing buildings being structurally sound ….. We think single-use plastic is a bad idea, but for some reason single-use buildings are normal.”

(Will Arnold)

  • Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation2 points out that a circular economy could reduce emissions from building materials by 38% over the next 30 years by reducing demand for steel, aluminium, cement, and plastic.
  • Earlier this year a report3 commissioned by the National Trust, Grosvenor, Peabody, and other property groups warned that the country “risks losing some of its cultural heritage if there are not enough skilled workers to upgrade and preserve older stock. This industry could be worth £35bn a year’’. The report claims that 105,000 new workers who would focus solely on improving the sustainability of buildings, will be needed every year for the next three decades if the UK is to meet its 2050 net zero target. Around one fifth of homes in the UK, about 6.2m, were built more than a century ago. A third of all commercial buildings - about 600,000 - are also more than 100 years old.The authors believe there is a need for a “national retrofit strategy” with a focus on training the workers needed to carry out refurbishments. They also suggest changes to the apprenticeship levy, as well as acknowledging that the effects of Brexit and an ageing workforce have resulted in a nationwide shortage of electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and scaffolders. In February 2023, Capital Economics warned that if nothing is done, there would be a shortfall of 1m labourers in 10 years.

The Role of Government: Whilst the Built Environment must step up to the plate and manifest leadership, the ultimate ‘‘goal’’ also requires leadership by government. There is “a critical and substantial gap” in national policies vis-a-vis decarbonisation at pace and scale. Rowing back is not the way forward. There needs to be a more robust regulatory landscape for a net zero future. Clear legislation should give climate and nature priority in planning decisions, alongside a system of low carbon budgets to align local decision-making with national targets.

The Role of the Built Environment (in the guise of Real Estate): if real estate does not step up soon, it will lose out. An increasing slew of questions are now being asked about how physical spaces are being built / retrofitted, what materials are used, and how they are sourced.

Leadership: Despite what the government may be doing (viz delays over regulation, uncertain political leadership etc) and, separately, negative reporting over COP, all indicators suggest that sustainability is set to remain the only game in town. For the Built Environment, a Net Zero environment is a necessity if the world is to alleviate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. This requires Leadership. And the true test of Leadership is inclusive “delivery.”

There are Positives ……….

  • Let us not forget the UKGBC’s “roadmap”4 to support achieving a climate resilient built environment by 2050. The roadmap provides an “evidence-based pathway” that will map how the built environment can adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.
  • Adoption of global standards, such as the Whole Life Carbon assessment5 (WLCA) for the built environment, 2nd edition could be instrumental in supporting professionals to assess and reduce emissions expected to be emitted over the life cycle of built assets.
  • Separate research from McKinsey6 earlier in the year found that professionals in the built environment sector can reduce more than 50% in industry emissions by 2030 using existing technologies.
  • Opportunities in Horizon Europe7: The Energy Series – Innovate UK KTN (Horizon Europe is an opportunity for all types of UK organisations (including businesses and academia) to get funding for research and innovation …. which includes the built environment)........but also Negatives.
  • Analysis of dozens of large companies in the global buildings space, including constructors and property developers, has found that more than half have no climate transition plans. This is leaving the jobs of more than a million workers at risk. The analysis conducted by the World Benchmarking Alliance8 (WBA) and CDP8, covers the climate-related targets and performance of 50 companies across building-related sectors. The top-line findings have been described by these two organisations as “particularly alarming,” given that buildings account for some 37% of global annual emissions and that, because buildings have such long working lives, decisions taken now can lock in emissions for decades to come. A significant minority (44%) of the companies assessed have no publicly disclosed targets to reduce emissions at all.

  • The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which has invested more than $10bn into developing nations for clean and green construction projects, has outlined the investment requirements to help slash emissions from the sector.The body’s new report9 found that $1.5trn will need to be invested in developing nations by 2035 in order to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency of buildings. Furthermore, the report found that more than 100 countries do not currently have building codes for energy efficiency.

Perhaps there is something here about climate justice. Clearly much needs to be done.

Concluding Statements: A Net Zero environment is a necessity if the world is to alleviate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. A net-zero future is not possible without the rapid decarbonisation of the built environment. Accounting for more than one-third of global emissions, the sector will need to function as a catalyst that spurs a widescale transition to a decarbonised, sustainable, and resilient society.

As a national Director at Savills said: ‘‘It’s hard to kick the can down the road when the road is underwater’’.

Not only is procrastination the thief of time, but time per se is running out. The bells are ringing!


  1. RICS Sustainability Report 2023
  2. Built environment and the circular economy (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)
  3. Retrofitting historic buildings could generate £35bn, create new construction jobs, and support net zero ambitions - Peabody (peabodygroup.org.uk)
  4. Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap | UKGBC
  5. Whole life carbon assessment (WLCA) for the built environment (rics.org)
  6. McKinsey report highlights 22 levers to reduce emissions from built environment by up to 75% (edie.net)  +building-value-by-decarbonizing-the-built-environment-vf.pdf (mckinsey.com)
  7. Opportunities in Horizon Europe: The Energy Series - Innovate UK KTN (ktn-uk.org)
  8. ‘Alarming’: Most companies in built environment sector do not have climate transition plans - edie+ Buildings Benchmark | World Benchmarking Alliance
  9. Investment Requirements to Reduce Emissions in Developing Nations (edie.net)]