Picture the scene. You are in a project design meeting, a networking event, an expo exhibition and someone brings up the topic of sustainability and environmentally friendly “green” design. You have probably been involved in many of such conversations. But how can you distinguish the “green wash” from the proven facts about sustainability in the built environment? And how can you contribute to such conversations with a sound knowledge of sustainability?
In this article you will explore what sustainability is, identify the key environmental issues and touch on different sustainability themes: climate change, energy efficiency, waste, water and more. Most importantly, we will ask: what is the role of the built environment industry in all this?
What is sustainability?
The most commonly quoted definition of sustainable development comes from the
Brundtland report – Our Common Future (1987) and says:
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The key sustainability notion is that the Earth’s resources are finite and, in addition, our biosphere relies on very delicate factors (temperature, biodiversity and so on). This equilibrium is currently being brought off-balance and human activities need to be planned carefully not to compromise the future existence or quality of life.
As such the vision for a sustainable future is a long term, stable and resilient set-up that enables us to live well within the possibilities offered by our natural assets.
You may also have come across the representation of The Three Pillars of Sustainability. There are many variants of this graph, however the key message is that Sustainability runs across the fields of Environment, Society and Economy, and that if we are to deliver true sustainability this should provide value for society, the economy and the environment.
Generally acknowledged in the business world is the term Triple Bottom Line relating to sustainability, which is used to measure performance in a wider perspective to cover the three P’s that represent this value system: Planet, People and Profit.
You will find a tendency to identify sustainability with the efforts to lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions, in one word, decarbonise. But climate change, although critical, is not the only environmental problem to take into account.
Sustainability should be seen as a holistic discipline addressing issues such as deforestation, socio-economic inequality, pollution and health consequences for humans, depletion of minerals / fossil fuels / water, waste accumulation, etc. and most of these are interlinked with each other!
Have a look at the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development goals, and you will get an overlook of the wide range of issues within the sustainability sphere, environmental, social and economic.
What is the sustainability challenge?
According to Global Footprint Network, to sustain what the world population consumes we would need one and a half planets, with some developed countries needing up to four planets. In the UK, the average Ecological Footprint of a UK resident is about three planets and breaks down as follows:
With a growing global population, it becomes clear that this cannot be sustained long term, and major shifts need to happen.
The rising rate of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, is contributing to global warming and therefore, climate change.
What is the scale of this problem? The international scientific community warns us that global warming 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial average temperature will have dangerous effects for communities and ecosystems, and the current trend takes us to an excess of 4 degrees!
What is the sustainability opportunity?
However, the future holds great positive potential: on one hand, we have limited natural resources, for example, minerals, water, and fossil fuels. But on the other hand we have rapidly renewable materials - such as timber or bamboo - reusable waste, and virtually infinite renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, wind, hydro power etc. We need to become smarter in using our resources more efficiently and increasing and integrating the use of renewable alternatives as quickly as possible.
The benefits and opportunities for business are numerous. Companies are beginning to link their sustainability efforts to commercial value such as:
Reducing costs from resource efficiency
Reduced operational costs from enhanced design
Increased asset value
Increased business opportunity
Finally, there is increasing evidence linking sustainable buildings to improved health and wellbeing of occupants.
How is the built environment industry doing in India?
It is important to understand the scale of the role that our industry play maximizing positive change. As well as providing economic benefit and places for people to live, work and play, the built environment in India influences around 40% of the total CO2 emissions; similarly, the construction industry is accountable for producing substantial waste (60% of total waste).
How do we influence the sustainability in the built environment?
As investment/design/construction/operations professionals, there are many aspects which we can take ownership of. Some of the areas of influence which inform the main sustainability aims are as follows:
Lower energy consumption (and therefore CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion) and introduce renewable energy.
Maximise resource efficiency, by lowering needed raw materials input, reusing, recycling, saving water, minimizing waste
Mitigate and enhance biodiversity, by implementing ecological strategies.
Improve health and wellbeing in terms of thermal comfort, moisture levels, acoustics, lighting.
Create long term value for society and enhance quality of life