Rob Lambe of Willmott Dixon Energy Services argues getting an ambitious Paris agreement will be only half the battle
We have all been watching the run-up to the next climate change summit in Paris (COP21) with interest, because, with an estimated 29 per cent of global emissions coming from buildings, we know that whatever emerges from the Paris negotiations, the building industry will have a pivotal part to play in delivering the emission reduction commitments taken on by the UK.
Willmott Dixon has long accepted that climate change is the biggest threat to our planet, and managing carbon emissions from our own operations is something we take very seriously. We have set ourselves an industry-leading target of halving our emissions by 2050 (compared with 2010). We are holders of the Carbon Trust Standard and pioneers for their new Supply Chain Standard. We have been carbon neutral since 2012.
Managing our own emissions is a small part of the story though, when it comes to the impact we have on the UK's built environment. Our industry has made great strides in recent years in improving the energy efficiency of the new buildings we construct, but there's much more we can do to improve their performance. There is also the issue of the homes, offices, hospitals and schools, which form the majority of our current building stock. Many of these are old, cold and draughty - and likely to still be around in 2050. Finding cost-effective ways to make these buildings more energy efficient is a massive challenge - and something our business has been working really hard on over the last five years.
These are big challenges, but, judging by the commitments made on the UK Green Building Council's climate pledge board, I am confident that our industry has the capability and determination to find the solutions. All we need is the right conditions to do so.
And this is where, beyond the outcome of the Paris climate summit, the UK government comes in. If our industry is to play its part in ensuring the UK meets its carbon reduction targets in a way that's both affordable and timely, companies like Willmott Dixon will have to sink considerable sums of money into research, development, knowledge and people. And in order to do this, we need to be confident that the government is taking a long-term policy approach.
Over the last few years, the green economy has been hit by a number of political 'about turns'. The cut to the Energy Company Obligation, the end to subsidies for onshore wind, adding the climate change levy to renewable energy, ditching a plan to make new homes zero carbon from 2016 - all of these are sending what are, at best, mixed messages about the government's commitment - and this risks diminishing the credibility of the UK government in the discussions leading up to and during the Paris conference.
However, the commitment announced by the Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, in her 'Energy Policy Re-Set' speech on 18th November to phase out coal by 2025 is very significant and places the UK government back into a stronger position than would have otherwise been the case at the COP21 negotiations. It was also encouraging to hear the Secretary of State say that "one of the best ways to cut bills and cut carbon is to cut energy use itself. That's why energy efficiency is so important".
The country has, at its disposal, the combined expertise, enthusiasm and commitment of the UK's construction industry. The question is - does our government have the vision and conviction to drive for an ambitious agreement in Paris? And, importantly, does it have the will to follow up a successful Paris agreement by putting in place policies that will genuinely drive the investment in the energy efficiency and low-carbon infrastructure that is key to building a secure and affordable low-carbon energy system?
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