It is nearly 40 years since UN special envoy Gro Harlem Brundtland enshrined the view that development and environment cannot and should not be distinguished as separate entities. Against a backdrop of environmental catastrophes from acid rain to the diminishing ozone layer, the impact of her landmark paper 'Our Common Approach' in the proceeding decades is hard to overstate.
During that period a political resolve combined with a willingness by those responsible for developing the built environment to embrace the essential tenets of sustainable development means we have seen the tide held back under the most challenging of circumstances. Galvanised by the Kyoto Protocol a decade ago, the construction sector has been at the coal face of innovation as the world has strived to drive down carbon gas emissions and reduce waste.
But as 40,000 delegates converged on Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) there is a very real danger of the sustainability agenda veering into the slow lane. The construction industry still accounts for half of global energy and water consumption and almost two-thirds of its raw materials. As far as the industry has come, it has still not come anywhere near far enough.
The political challenges of reaching a meaningful settlement in Paris are substantial when one person's self-interest is another person’s aspiration. Only those with a loose grip on the industrial history of the planet underestimate the potential conflict between the developing and the developed. Even in the UK – which has been one of the pioneers of best practice over the past 40 years – we have seen a retreat from the sustainable agenda with the abolition of the Code for Sustainable Homes and Green Deal renewable incentives, and left without a robust alternative incentive.
The response to this political wavering is that the industry must take up the mantle and lead the sustainability agenda itself, not because it has to – although the future habitability of the planet kind of depends on it – but because it understands better than anyone the economic opportunities on offer from sound environmental practices.
It is imperative that we work with our clients and local authorities to re-establish a “best environmental practice” approach to ensure that core values of sustainable development targets are set and that CO2 reduction is a priority on every project.
As political commitment wavers, it is necessary to develop a design culture that actively challenges and explores new methods of reducing emissions and evolving waste management through adopting the RIBA Digital Plan of Works and BIM methodology for asset management on all projects.
As we know the economic imperative will always trump any moral obligation, but helping to promote a narrative that articulates the very real long-term benefits of sustainable development, needs to sit at the heart of any future strategy through data sharing and inter-project collaboration.
Ultimately our commitment must not just be to reducing emissions but also to understanding that climate change is already upon us. Mitigation will be our biggest growth area in the future as the health and wellbeing of those people occupying our built environment has already become a major priority in some of the worst-affected cities and regions around the world.
We know that we are not alone in this endeavour and that many others are committed to forging on against any prevailing winds. But we must ensure that sustainability remains front and centre for everyone involved in development – regardless of what is agreed in Paris.
It’s what Gro Harlem Brundtland would want.