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Adapting for climate change - time for action

Graham Munday \ 17th May 2024

Eleven industry voices, drawn together at the sector-leading conference Footprint+, discussed the preparedness of the built environment to adapt to climate change. Data, awareness, government support, mindset shifts, and insurance, dominated a lively debate.

The big picture

Our roundtable at Footprint + 2024 asked how an evidence-based approach can help all stakeholders responsible for built assets prepare for a changing climate.

All guests acknowledged that decarbonisation to mitigate climate change, and adaptation to prepare for the undisputed impacts of a changing climate, are two sides of the same coin.

However, in his opening remarks, Josh Bullard, divisional director for smart energy and sustainability at Hydrock, now Stantec, noted that whilst broad understanding of net zero commitments has informed strategies to fund, cut energy use, and meet stated targets, it's harder to pin down the pathway to adaptation and who funds it.

Josh's take is that responsibility and commitment varies depending on different perspectives. The planning system has often led new development and its approach to flooding and over-heating. At an organisational level, standards such as the new International Financial Reporting Standards and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, will drive organisations to understand the impacts of climate change on their wider ecosystems of suppliers and customers, and in turn their built assets.

But, ultimately, it's the capital markets - the funders - who will push stakeholders to understand the likely long-term impacts of climate change. They provide the access to funds, and will want to minimise risk and impact, so they will need evidence of physical and transitional risks being managed.

Why is adapting to climate change not centre stage?

Our roundtable felt that stakeholders remain reactive rather than proactive to climate change.

If there's a flood, there's a response to deal with the immediate crisis and to conduct flood risk assessments. But there's not a long-term plan to understand the likelihood of the risk and, as a consequence, adapt.

Adaptation doesn't benefit from the focus on targets and goals that is associated with the net zero agenda. The sense is that the cost-of-living crisis has driven the pace of change to reach net zero.

If investment in energy efficiency measures reduces energy bills, this cuts through with the public and commands attention. There is some logic in mitigating first, and then adapting. Clearly, we should be doing both in parallel, but this is regarded as too big a pill to swallow by most stakeholders.

The impacts of a changing climate are also more long-term, and therefore there is a degree of 'out of sight, out of mind' thinking.

Image courtesy Footprint+

Access to data

Data is everything. Rebecca Lydon, director at Hydrock, now Stantec, has led our work on climate risk and adaptation. Rebecca walked the table through our meticulous approach to overlaying UKCP18 (UK Climate Projections 2018) data, with multiple datasets on the environmental landscape at specific locations, and building survey data. This approach helps understand both the likelihood and the severity of impacts on built assets.

Rebecca emphasised the importance of scenario planning across the short-term to 2030, the medium-term of 2031-50, and the long-term from 2051 to 2080. Regularly revisiting the data sets is key, and looking at a breadth of issues, including temperature, humidity, precipitation and wind speed, is all part of a thorough analysis process.

The emergence of the UK Green Building Council's resilience roadmap, scheduled for release at COP29 later in 2024, will also offer organisations a pathway to understand their risks.

At the table, our guests responsible for property portfolios acknowledged that this data must be viewed through a lens of how climate change will affect different archetypes and even different types of occupier, for example older, more vulnerable age groups. This richness of data can inform where action is first taken to adapt assets to climate change.

Preparing for climate change can seem an overwhelming challenge, but as the table pointed out, we've had good processes for flood management and coastal erosion strategies for some time, and this is about pulling all the evidence and data together.

Rebecca emphasised that physical risks are not universal. They are very location and archetype-dependant, so broad-brush approaches won't work. Accurate baselines of evidence are key.

Who pays?

At face value, cost is a challenge. However, from around the table, different perspectives painted an alternative picture:

  • The risk of doing nothing can be significantly outweighed by the impacts on business continuity in the face of climate change.
  • Many adaptation measures can be 'low cost, low regret'.
  • Tenants with long leases will see the benefits of making their operations resilient.
  • Funds, investing long-term, can remove risks, avoid stranded assets, and will regard upfront investment as worthwhile.

Our roundtable, however, did make two pragmatic challenges:

  • For any building, there could be a tipping point at which pumping money in to maintain its condition becomes a pointless objective, as the rate of climate change outpaces the ability to fund and maintain.
  • Should existing publicly-available net zero funding streams be extended to adaptation works?

Can we insure against risk?

Very specifically, through our guest, James Bosley, head of climate strategy and parametric solutions at Gallagher Specialty, we focused on how the insurance sector is responding to the fact that accepted thinking on likely risk is no longer a certainty.

Gaining traction is parametric insurance. This insures against a specific event (peril) and pays out a set amount within 30 days based on the magnitude of the event.

Its value is to alleviate concern about specific natural catastrophes or weather events by providing a transparent trigger, with quick payment within 30 days that provides broad coverage, including pure economic losses such as business interruption. For example, insuring against the volume of rainfall in a specific period that might delay construction. If the event occurs, it pays out. However, if the trigger is not met, it does not provide cover.

More generally, James emphasised that for new materials in construction, insurers are engaging with this and that as the volume scales it will be easier for them to understand the likely risk and price it accordingly.

Changing mindsets

What action is needed? Unsurprisingly, with the breadth of experience and background at the table, a range of new thinking is recommended to address how we adapt our built environment:

  • The call is for government-endorsed regulations and standards to bring focus to this agenda, just as it has for net zero, and building safety through the Building Safety Act. Arguably, risk and adaptation assessments should be required for every refurbishment, retrofit and new build.
  • Data and evidence are key. Investment is needed to draw all the available evidential strands together to offer a properly informed picture. Again, this requires leadership from government to take this seriously.
  • As an industry, we need to change the way we see things. We need to challenge our existing design principles, for example around volumes of glass, or ventilation. Designing for resilience to long-term climate change needs to be part of our planning process.
  • To make the issue more accessible to everyone, we need to promote case studies, education and champions, whilst simplifying the language used when assessing likely long-term climate impacts.
  • We need to think big, and use a spatial scale in our approach to understanding the risk. In turn, we should reframe the way future sites are assessed for viability to include long-term climatic patterns, impacts and resilience.

Our roundtable concluded that the drivers to creating a resilient future in the face of impending climate change are industry collaboration, government leadership, and recognition that evidence-led action must be taken now.

With thanks to: Becky Ritchie, Clarion Housing Group; Bryan Oknyansky, Studio Moren; Claire Hedley, Historic England; Dan Kennett, Fulkers Bailey Russell; Frankie Demetriades, Abrdn; James Bosley, Gallagher Specialty; Josh Bullard, Hydrock, now Stantec; Marianne Thomas, M3 Consulting; Rebecca Lydon, Hydrock, now Stantec; Rob Hopkins, AHR; and Sonia Parol, Inspired Villages.