With the global population in the grip of COVID-19 (C-19), Neil Humphrey, Waterman’s Chief Operating Officer, sheds light on how we can use this time to make bold changes in the face of the climate crisis.

What have we learned during lockdown? It is said that only in times of crisis do we truly innovate, that we change our way of thinking and our approach to problem solving because we simply have no other choice

Recession brings about an acceleration in business model change – driving down costs and streamlining processes – and can enable entirely new categories of business to emerge. C-19 has caused an unprecedented shock to the global economy, whilst also tragically affecting millions of individuals and families.

In the short term, we are all focussed on the health and safety of our friends, families, neighbours and co-workers. But we only have to look over our shoulders at the scale of the climate change emergency confronting us to realise that, if nothing else, C-19 has proven that we can all change and adapt the way we live our lives.

Business leaders across every sector are looking at how to adapt their business to address the ‘new normal’ under C-19, and to capitalise on new ways of working that have emerged through the crisis. Highlighting this shift, Cushman & Wakefield’s recent report, ‘The Future of Workplace’, shows that 73% of the workers they surveyed around the world want their employers to permanently embrace working from home, among other flexible working practices.

From a base level of re-assessing building occupancy and what building footprint is required, to re-assessing travel and working patterns, each business is fundamentally reviewing how it operates and the markets it serves. And, now is also the time to ensure that we put climate resilience at the heart of our business models.

In May, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) wrote to the Prime Minister emphasising that there was an opportunity to “…embed new social norms, especially for travel, that benefit well-being, improve productivity, and reduce emissions”. One thing that has been evident, from a global perspective, is that Governments were ill-prepared for the pandemic, and this lack of preparation is even more acute when we assess their plans for climate change.

Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, warned last month that UK faces a “severe recession”, and whilst he has aimed to help businesses via a series of emergency measures, so far none are conditional on green goals. The government has yet to outline how the UK’s net zero target will be linked to its economic recovery plans. In an open an open letter, dated 1st June, over 200 companies, including Waterman, called on Boris Johnson to launch a green economic recovery plan to accelerate the transition to net zero. Incorporating the net zero and environmental agenda into the rebuild of the economy is an important approach and will strengthen the UK’s position and influence as we are set to host COP26 and G7 summits in 2021.

When considering the established climate predictions for the UK, we are not adequately prepared for even minimal changes in our weather patterns, let alone the extreme scenarios we increasingly face. The CCC highlights the inaction of the Government since the Net Zero target became law, stating that every day of delay makes “the challenge of cutting emissions harder and costlier”. They urge the Government to put Net Zero at the heart of the UK’s economic strategy to build lasting resilience.

To strengthen the UK’s response to the climate crisis, the CCC have set out five priority action areas:

  • Establishing a properly funded, clear strategy for removing fossil fuels from the UK’s building stock;
  • Consult on an earlier phase-out of petrol and diesel cars, ideally by 2030;
  • Continue to push towards 40GW of offshore wind energy by 2030;
  • Develop mechanisms to pay for emissions reductions across industry, targeting hydrogen and Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) infrastructure; and
  • Deliver the promised 30,000 hectares annual tree planting and target cutting emissions through agriculture.

Everyone working in the built environment is aware of the challenges faced in the transition to zero carbon new homes and buildings. At the same time, the retail sector is faced with unprecedented challenges, and we only need to look at our own high streets to highlight the struggles ahead. We need to re-imagine our town centres, where retail is not the focal point and where the car does not dominate pedestrian flows. This is something Karen Telling from our Structures team highlighted in her recent blog How the built environment can adapt after COVID-19, where she predicts an increase in multi-faceted urban developments which are dynamic and adaptable in their functions, suiting building user’s changing requirements throughout the day.

Another key challenge is mitigating the growing risk of flooding. Since 2001 we have seen a 20% increase in the pave-over of urban areas, compounding the problem and contributing to annual flooding events. How does the built environment continue to respond to the 1 in a 100-year flood event when it occurs every decade? This has been a focus for us at Waterman, where we have seen a significantly increased demand to help new and existing developments integrate flood mitigation measures.

The Environment Agency have suggested that the number of properties built on flood-prone areas in Britain will double in the next 50 years, as the population grows and we need to ensure that new properties are resilient to the effects of climate change, alongside investing in infrastructure upgrades to protect existing buildings.

We know that flood resilience alone will not win the war against climate change, we must widen our vision to include the whole of our natural capital, encompassing the protection and enhancement of our natural environment, but it will play an integral part in our wider armoury. The Government’s 2019 manifesto saw them commit to increase flood defence spending by £4 billion – a necessary first step towards lasting resilience – and it will be important to ringfence this budget to address the increasing flooding issues.

It has been argued that the pandemic has fast-tracked the direction of travel the economy was already on, bringing forward 2030 working practices and thinking to 2020, and it is critical we seize the opportunity to place climate resilience and net zero carbon at the heart of our economic strategy and recovery plan.

Neil Humphrey, CEO – Waterman

Waterman’s team of specialists incorporate climate change resilience within their designs. We are also supporting local authorities in developing business cases to access funding to further protect vulnerable properties. If you’d like to discuss this further, please contact Neil Humphrey for more information.