The big picture: The built environment sector embraces the Goals

This years’ ecobuild event challenged the UK’s built environment sector to raise its level of ambition and support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We explore discussions from the three-day event and opportunities for further action.

Ecobuild, the UKs leading built environment event, set itself the challenge this year of pushing the industry to engage with and support action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Opening the conference programme, Paula Cabellero, Global Director of the World Resources Institute and formerly a representative of the Colombian Government, made a clear call to action for the sector: the SDGs should be the guiding principle to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and get to 2050 targets in an inclusive way.

Why should the built environment sector care?

Approximately $90 trillion needs to be spent on infrastructure in cities in next 15 years, equivalent to the size of our existing infrastructure stock. Most of this will be in low-income countries where capacity to ensure that this is done in a safe and sustainable way is lacking.

If not done well, the long lifespan of buildings and infrastructure means that we’ll be locked-in to carbon intensive lifestyles and not achieve emissions reduction targets. And as we were reminded by Paula, climate change and its impacts will undermine the achievement of all the other Goals. The Goals are connected and dependent and need to be treated as one whole, not as separate isolated issues.

This also applies to the UK. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) states that 18% of UK carbon emissions come from buildings with a further 15% of emissions coming from electricity consumed in buildings. The lifespan of a house built today takes us well past 2050, by which time the UK should have cut its carbon emissions by 80% under its own legally binding target. This means that the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes a year should reflect the necessity of delivering low or zero-carbon homes and lifestyles throughout their lifespan. Is this possible?

If there was one thing that ecobuild taught attendees, it was that the technology and capacity exists in the UK to ensure that both new development and the existing stock of buildings matches the carrying capacity of our planet. It’s greater joined-up action that’s needed and the Goals are one way of doing this.

Taking action

UKSSD’s own panel, as part of the Institution of Civil Engineers seminar programme, explored action on the Goals from outside of the built environment sector. We discussed civil society, government and business action in an attempt to show the range of opportunities available. We made the business case clear when Caroline Laurie, Head of Sustainability at Kingfisher, argued strongly that the SDGs make business sense. It’s a value proposition that business needs to respond to if they’re to de-risk and survive in to the future – including those businesses at ecobuild. 

Credit goes to UKSSD Partner Bioregional for putting their energy behind SDGs during ecobuild. They collected over 100 pledges from delegates in support of the Goals. The actions from discussions held over the three-day event were also collated and presented on the final day by Bioregional’s CEO, Sue Riddlestone OBE. The recommendations and next steps ranged from greater collaboration across and outside of the sector to a call for an Environment Act.

Whatever happens next, ecobuild has shone a spotlight on the sector’s action on the Goals and raised awareness of them.

Our favourite comment came from Davide Stronati of Mott MacDonald, who said ‘we need to stop thinking that someone else will deliver the Goals for us’ and encouraged everyone to start working in partnership to achieve them.