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07.04.2021

How to avoid climate disaster? Imagine a conversation with your children’s children.

I’m currently reading Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Even within the first few pages there are two very clear illustrations of the magnitude of the problem and the moral responsibility our industry has to help resolve it.

Firstly, while Covid 19 has seen a brief respite from CO2 and equivalent emissions, Gates estimates that in real terms this will likely amount to a temporary 5% drop. In other words, the current average of 51bn tons per annum would drop to 48bn tons.

Bear in mind here that the goal is ZERO.

Gates reflects on the scale of changes we will need to make if the last 12-month ‘epic of endurance and privation’, to quote the Prime Minister recently, have only moved the needle by 5%. As he says simply and powerfully at the outset: “51 billion and zero are the only two numbers you need to focus on”.

The second illustration – which also serves to demonstrate just how difficult the first one will be to achieve – is that, as the world continues to urbanise, we are on track to double the global building stock by 2060.

As he puts it, that’s another New York City, every month, for the next 40 years.
As developers we should relish that prospect. But perhaps living near the sea heightens my sense of urgency. This scale of development fills me with apprehension, but it also fires a determination to be a part of the solution.

While I am convinced that our solutions need to be radical, I’m equally clear that the future does not lie in some retreat from construction and development. We can debate the value of the ‘office’, the future of retail, or even the very nature of urban life post covid, but if the experience of being isolated in our homes for a year has taught us anything, it’s the fundamental importance of human sociability and our innate need to congregate in places to support that. Buildings, in other words. It’s why we first inhabited caves.

And, if it’s accepted that private investment has a critical role to play in the solution, then so do the much-maligned developers. Our role is to connect the innovators to sources of capital – the ideas to the money if you like – and take the calculated risks that excite those often-cautious institutional investors who have the power to effect large-scale change.

Alongside Gates’ book I’ve been reading a powerful novel about the Great War (hardly a light-hearted respite!). Analogies with war are overused (the ‘war on Covid’?) and typically designed to frame our own experiences in the form of similarly heroic struggle and stoic suffering (straight from the PM’s playbook). For the characters in the novel, and I suspect more generally, the war experience is framed more by feelings of responsibility and guilt; responsibility for our actions, guilt over the consequences.

If we want to avoid that sense of guilt when we are asked by future generations what we did ‘in the Great Climate War’, then those in our generation empowered to lead change need to start taking real responsibility now. My next two blog articles will describe the lead that Bywater is taking to continue fulfilling our responsibilities. First by making a binding commitment to put more than just profit at the heart of what we do through starting the journey to become a certified BCorp, and secondly, in pursuing radical alternatives to achieve net zero carbon buildings.

TM