Removing politics from the sustainability equation

Removing politics from the sustainability equation

Simon Richards is sustainability director at Sir Robert McAlpine

Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of promises to clamp down on climate change, and the legal commitment for the UK to be net-zero carbon by 2050 remains one of the most ambitious targets of the past decade.

However, while impressive on paper, there still seems to be a disconnect between the promises made and the reality of implementation. What’s more, the political turmoil of last year stripped away a lot of momentum for effective action and created a shroud of uncertainty over the current legislative direction of travel.

“We need to move away from implementing sweeping policies that rely on the industry to figure out how to action them effectively”

Sustainability and environmental legislation should not be attached to any single political party. Combating climate change needs to be a cross-party initiative, taking into account the reality of the challenges facing us all. The construction industry is responsible for 25 per cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions; we therefore have a significant task at hand in achieving the UK’s net-zero ambitions.

Legislation as it stands

Current legislative measures have a tendency to be too simplistic to be effective. Take, for example, the biodiversity net gain requirements for projects under the Environment Act, which fail to take into account regional disparities. The act, which comes into effect this November, introduces a mandatory requirement for developments to provide at least a 10 per cent biodiversity net gain. While the requirements are easily achievable for places with low biodiversity, like some city centres, for projects in many rural areas, the targets are much harder to achieve.

We need to move away from implementing sweeping policies that rely on the industry to figure out how to action them effectively. There needs to be greater collaboration between the public and private sector in creating roadmaps that outline how we can realistically reach these targets, with shared ownership of risk and opportunities to drive progress at the pace we need.

A climate coalition

The government needs to provide a long-term plan in addressing sustainability (not just climate change) which isn’t dependent on the ever-changing political cycle. In the course of the last 12 months our commitments to sustainability have varied wildly and have been completely dependent on the prime minister at the helm. Ideally, environmental legislation should not be a political battling ground. A huge risk element that is restricting the delivery of sustainable infrastructure is uncertainty over what the future legislative environment will look like.

If industry leaders are in the dark as to what will be prioritised in the government’s future sustainability agenda, the constant guessing game only goes to hinder progress and results in fragmented attempts made by individual players in the market. While these attempts are admirable, any step in the wrong direction is ultimately a wasted effort. Therefore, why not come together and create a coalition of interested parties and experts to jointly discuss and agree not only policy, but the required action plans to ensure we deliver?

Creating a sustainable industry

With policy set, the world is looking towards the UK in the fight against climate change. While countries such as France and the Netherlands have put in place specific targets for carbon emissions on new-builds, we are still coming up empty. Policies like the Net Zero Carbon Building standards, if implemented at UK level, could act as a North Star for the sector and provide real and attainable goals to be worked towards.

Achieving sustainability within the industry also goes beyond legalisation – it requires an investment of time, money and resources, with a long-term view extending past the next decade. Although the current economic climate will create difficulties for companies wanting to prioritise commercial goals, the sustainability and climate crisis is not a problem that can wait for tomorrow and must be aligned with commercial targets now.

Sustainability means more than just carbon emissions. Achieving biodiversity targets, social-value outcomes in local communities and delivering a circular economy are all important aspects that the industry must consider moving forward. To deliver a more sustainable construction sector in the most efficient and beneficial way, we must work together – with the policy makers – to create clear plans and commitments, not just words.

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