How the built environment must respond to the IPCC’s 2021 climate change report

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25 August, 2021


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Peter Oosterveer

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2021 report makes it crystal clear that we’re not doing enough to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change. The question we all have to ask ourselves is what we’re going to do to pull the environment back from the brink.

As the CEO of Arcadis, a global firm that delivers design, engineering, and consultancy solutions for natural and built assets, I find the report to be a devastating indictment of where things stand. The World Green Building Council has found that buildings and construction account for a massive 39% of all carbon emissions in the world, with 28% being related to energy expended lighting, heating, and cooling buildings (operational carbon) and the remaining 11% from energy use, related to producing construction materials (embodied carbon). But reducing these figures is only one aspect of what this industry can and must do in light of the IPCC report.

Designers, engineers, consultants, and others working in this space have a critical role to play in protecting people from the climate disaster, which is already upon us, as well as in driving down emissions in the hopes of eventually reversing climate change. We need to accelerate climate action in the form of innovative projects that minimize the long-term impacts of climate change (mitigation) and reduce the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing (adaptation).

Adaptation to cope with our current predicament

The IPCC’s report is also perhaps the clearest testimony to the environmental predicament we’re currently in. Put simply, the report demonstrates that climate change is real, it’s manmade, the effects are all around us right now and, as things currently stand, the situation is quickly going to get worse.

This bleak assessment of the state of the world means that we must act now to protect ourselves. We must increase our resilience against the unavoidable impacts of climate change. 2021 has already provided us with numerous examples of the crisis at hand. In mid-July, extreme rainfall across Europe caused massive flooding, more than 200 deaths and billions of euros in damage. This is a clear sign that not only here in Europe but all over the world, we must quickly make smart investments in resilient infrastructure to protect against these types of events.

There should no longer be a question about whether there will be returns on these investments. Here in the Netherlands, we have had to focus on designing and building flood protection infrastructure because so much of our country is highly vulnerable to flooding. And though this summer’s flooding was bad here, thankfully we had implemented the “Room for the River” concept (and it proved to be effective), and as a result we were fortunate enough to avoid loss of life and be able to move quickly into the recovery phase.

On the other side of the world, in western North America, this summer was also disastrous, as a record -breaking heatwave scorched parts of the United States and Canada. This calamity led to at least 900 deaths, and it has also been linked to the effects of climate change. At the end of June, the City of Portland, Oregon reached a temperature of 47 degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit). Our cities were not designed for temperatures that high. In fact, many urban areas become death traps at extreme temperatures, a phenomenon known as urban heat island effect. To address this, we need to redesign our cities, introducing much more vegetation and water on and around buildings to absorb heat and naturally cool the environment. This will also have the added benefit of reducing urban emissions related to cooling indoor environments.

These are two specific examples, but intelligent and nature-based engineering and construction are integral in addressing all aspects of the crisis, including protecting coastal cities from sea level rise, water conservation in light of increased drought conditions as well as designing structures that can withstand the impacts of extreme storms.

Mitigation to reverse global warming

As we are protecting ourselves from the current crisis, we also need to take steps that can contribute to temperature decreases later this century. The key is driving down emissions to the point that we quickly achieve global net zero – balancing emissions produced with emissions taken out of the atmosphere – and eventually going beyond this, to the point that we are effectively removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

As I laid out earlier, we can only accomplish this if our industry gets on board. We already have the technology and techniques to make a big difference. Collectively, we need to rapidly shift away from a reliance on standard concrete, steel, glass, and other construction materials with a high amount of embodied carbon. There are already lower carbon versions of concrete available and in some environments, wood is emerging as a far more sustainable substitute.

And, just as important, we need to design buildings and infrastructure in ways that use far less materials. For instance, in the work that Arcadis is contributing to hardening the ‘Afsluitdijk’-dike here in the Netherlands, we have been able to reduce the required amount of concrete by 40%, without compromising the structure or the additional protection it will provide.

We must also address emissions related to transporting construction materials. We can do this by being smarter about building with materials that are already present on construction sites or in the nearby vicinity. Widespread adoption of modular construction practices can also help reduce transportation emissions, while making the overall construction process more efficient and creating assets that can be more easily disassembled and relocated elsewhere, which also reduces emissions. This type of circular economic thinking must become the norm if we want to undo the damage we’ve done to the natural world.

The picture of the world that’s painted in the IPCC report is shocking and potentially disheartening but if we act now, we can change the trajectory we’re on. As the CEO of one of the leading companies operating in this space, I recognize the urgent need for action and here at Arcadis we are truly committed to accelerating the pace of positive change. I also know that the challenge we face is daunting and I don’t have all of the answers. But I do believe that working together the future can still be bright. It’s time to do everything we can to address climate change and designers, engineers, and everyone working in the built environment can and should lead the way.