The Ethics of Development (part II)

In the last article ‘The ethics of Development Part I’, I set out the framework within which I think the profession can begin to consider the ethical impact of projects that they are involved in.  This has come about because last year I was asked to speak about ethics and architecture at the APRES 2016 conference. I accepted the invitation because I thought that it would force me to confront the question: What does ethics mean in a professional context?. These articles are the result.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with buildings built with, hopefully, inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants, and society, there are ethical implications to every act related to design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

The central question of ethics, as I see it, is ‘are we being fair to everyone involved in the process of design and construction?’

A further question we need to ask ourselves is: Does our professional ability and knowledge mean that we should take an extra level of care for everyone and everything affected by our work, even when legislation and guidance are absent?  A check through the two codes of conduct that architects should follow is revealing insofar as it reveals an inadequate response to today’s environmental crisis.

The RIBA Professional Code of Conducts states:

Members shall respect the relevant rights and interests of others.

The ARB Architects Code states:

12.1 You should treat everyone fairly. You must act in compliance with your legal obligations. You must not discriminate ……

The RIBA Professional Code of Conduct states:

3.2 Members should be aware of the environmental impact of their work.

Note: Aware! But not asked to do anything.

The ARB Architects Code states:

5.1 Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.

The ‘where appropriate’ has me baffled. Where would it not be appropriate? Given that every project an architect could be involved in must have an impact, how could such advice ever not be appropriate?

In my previous article I set out the four areas within which to consider the ethical implications of any project, here I expand on those with examples of issues to consider, this is not meant to be exhaustive, only indicative.

  1. The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation, and demolition. What are the impacts of the building on people over time? How does it change over time? Are we aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

For example, a question we might ask in regeneration projects, or in any design project where an existing use is being closed or moved to facilitate the new project, ‘Are people being treated fairly to enable the design and construction process to happen?’

This question is particularly relevant to regeneration projects where the lives of people who live within the regeneration zone are going to be disrupted to enable the regeneration project to happen. Care must be taken to ensure that they are treated fairly and end up being beneficiaries of the project. If they are to suffer the disruption of moving and being rehoused, possibly more than once, then surely they should enjoy a share of the benefits of the project that they are enabling to happen.

Historically, many slum clearances happened without the agreement of residents, work was done to them, and not with them, and happily, we no longer behave this way in the UK. Other countries do behave this way, there is plenty of evidence of such clearances happening in China over the last decade. But whenever I hear the word ‘decanting’ (a shorthand term for moving people out of their buildings into other accommodation) I feel that while we may have moved on in terms of how we work, but not all of us have moved on it terms of the way we think. Decanting is something you do to wine. Perhaps we should use the word ‘disrupting’ instead?

At the same time, we must ask ourselves whether people who are on the housing waiting list are being treated fairly.

Across England, there were 1,183,779 households on the social housing waiting lists in 2016. If we take an average household size of 2.3 from the last census, that gives us a figure of 2,722,691 people.

The needs of such people, often housed in substandard accommodation, at high costs to the country, and often overcrowded, should be given sufficient weight when deciding what to do in any situation.  There may be a temptation to give more weight to people who are already living locally in any planning decision, but surely the need of those not present have equal weight, and if their need is dire, greater weight than the incumbents?

  1. The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context. Do we aim for the greatest good or the least damage to the planet?

In recent years we have seen a huge rise in the amount of legislation, guidance, and advice related to greening the construction sector. Building Regulations, green building standards, and policy have all pushed the sector to make massive improvements in the performance of buildings. But two issues remain, the policy has become patchy as first the Coalition and then the Tory Government pulled back on the scope and level of intent of such policies, and the analysis of completed buildings demonstrates that many are not achieving the environmental targets that were originally set.  

Should the architectural profession have a set of core standards that give guidance and support to professionals working on projects where clients or local policies don’t support or actively work against environmental targets or where national policy vacillates due to political expediency? If we are to have a Government propped up by the DUP who claim that climate change isn’t real, we need protection against potential further backsliding. Particularly at a point in time where we are leaving the EU and will no longer have its substantial support for environmental protection.

Should the profession refuse to work on projects where there is an unwillingness on the part of clients to meet their environmental obligations? Would this strengthen our position as expert and impartial advisors, or weaken it?

  1. Those affected by the purpose and use of the building, the client, the funders, owners, operators, those nearby, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Do we aim for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? If so, how do we account for this and what do we mean by benefit? Is it financial gain, safety, better services? How do we compare these against each other in terms of the benefits they bring as well as the difficulties they cause…

Some of these effects are covered by the law, Building Regulations or a duty of care, but much of it isn’t.  As we build at higher densities, issues occur which are new in the UK and poorly considered by our regulations, other countries with more tall buildings are further advanced than us in some respects. When more people move into an area, the balance of the community is changed. While some argue that an influx of new people into an area is beneficial as it brings more economic activity, those living in the area previously often feel threatened by new neighbours, rightly or wrongly. Increased levels of traffic is often a bone of contention but is probably used as a stalking horse for the real objection, which is to any new development, regardless of its impact on traffic.

It is important that we are clear about the benefits that new development brings to an area as well as acknowledging the impacts that it causes.

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a ready-made structure to use here so we may only need to assess how this structure relates to our work as designers and whether we are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. A fundamental issue is whether we know how well or badly we are currently doing before we even start to think about improving matters.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is well worn, but relevant to the built environment. It proposes that our human needs are hierarchical and dependant on each other. Only by fulfilling basic needs of shelter and nourishment can we begin to achieve well-being, good mental health, and fulfillment. An ethical view of this would support a designers ambition to create buildings that help their occupants in achieving as much of the hierarchy as possible. From shelter on the one hand to enabling self-actualisation on the other. This makes the basic point that buildings are for people, not for architects, and it is only by fulfilling the needs of the people living in our buildings are we fulfilling our own needs as professionals.

Do we know how well we are doing? Mostly not. Post-occupancy study happens in a tiny fraction of the built environment, even of the part of it designed by architects. Without a better evidence base, we risk becoming irrelevant as others who lack our design drive are enabled by technology to sample the needs and desires of people and to provide it to them through technology that bypasses us. A connection to our audience is essential for the profession to thrive, and our audience is the user of our buildings, not each other.

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The Ethics of Development (Part I)

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noted a gap in my posts.  For various reasons, I have been occupied with other things and I haven’t felt that blogs were what was needed. Among the ‘other things’ is Brexit, which I think is an utter disaster, an unbelievable backward step for us all in the UK, one which we will regret for a generation.

Other ‘other things’ such as the US administrations unconscionable behaviour in relation to climate change makes me put my head in my hands on a regular basis, but the optimist in me thinks(hopes fervently) that it is a short-term problem and that the next administration will reverse the direction of US policy to be more sensible and ethical.

This brings me neatly to where I wanted to get to, as one of the things I have been thinking about, reading about and writing about over the last year is the question of ethics and how we relate ethics to climate change in the world of the built environment. I firmly believe that one of the reasons why the US has back-tracked on the Paris Agreement is that there is no widely agreed ethical position on climate change outside the environmental movement. It is being discussed as a matter of science, and facts, both of which are open to misinterpretation or denial by those who have much to gain by delaying action. If there was a strong ethical position that was commonly agreed in the West, then the discussion about science could continue but against a backdrop of general agreement about what is the ‘right thing to do’ or ‘the right direction’ to take. As Brexit and the US elections have shown, there is a large group in both populations unwilling to listen to reasoned arguments, and unconvinced that action on climate change is the ‘right thing to do’.  Perhaps we can use ethics to look at the problem from another direction?

My aim is to look into the idea of sustainable development in the built environment from an ethical standpoint and help to demonstrate why this is the ‘right thing to do’.

My thoughts on this were partially prompted last year when I was asked to speak about ethics and architecture at the APRES 2016 conference. I accepted the invitation because I thought that it would force me to confront the question: what does ethics mean in a professional context?   I also thought that I could develop an understanding of the relevance of ethics to the architectural profession in particular. I was half-right, insofar as I am far from achieving a full understanding of the topic, but closer to a view of what the relevance of ethics is to the profession.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with buildings built with, hopefully, inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants and society, there are ethical implications to every act related to design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

In order to discuss the issue of ethics, I think that we need a framework to describe how it relates to development, even if its only temporary, a scaffold within which to erect our ideas, and then we can remove it if we are satisfied with the result.

There are a number of dimensions to the problem and each has its ethical implications. In the following paragraphs, I try and set out such a framework and to highlight just a few of the ethical issues that arise in each area. In a second blog, I will try and flesh out these four areas of ethical consideration.

1.The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation and demolition.

Much of the early stages of the building’s life is covered by the stages of the Plan of Work and therefore the RIBA code of conduct. But even early-stage design raises ethical issues. If people need to be moved and rehoused to enable a regeneration project, are their needs being balanced by the needs of those who will be housed in the new development? What measure can we use to balance such needs? Do we aim for the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Or do those living on a site deserve special treatment? Are their needs more deserving than people who haven’t arrived yet? If so, why?

Are we designing buildings that will minimise the harm to those who are going to build them? CDM legislation has helped enormously to raise awareness of safety in construction and in the use of buildings, but our traditional construction methods and procurement behaviour impose risks which look less reasonable with every accident.

2.The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context.

Some of the context is covered by planning law and national legislation, other parts, particularly the impact on the global context of material extraction, is not. For example, there has been some recent discussion on the impact of tall buildings on their neighbours, near and far away. How much weight should designers give to such considerations where there is no legislation and little guidance relating to this impact? In the wider context we are faced with the danger of climate change, and while we have some legislation to deal with it in both Building Regulations and planning law, the implementation of it is patchy and the final building would often fail a detailed post-occupancy test of performance. The RIBA Code of Professional Conduct is weak on the subject, do we need a strong Code of Ethics to support us to do the right thing? If local or national Government is going to be weak, can the profession be strong?

3.Those affected by the purpose and use of the building, the client, the funders, owners, operators, those nearby, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Some of these are covered by Building Regulations or the legal duty of care but many of them are not.   The impact of building low-rise homes on agricultural land is a case in point. Building low-density homes in suburbs that are far removed from services and amenities is already an obviously poor strategy in social and environmental terms, but the majority of new homes in the UK fit into this category. What can the profession do to represent the people who are only being offered a car-dominated environment to live in?

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a ready-made structure to use here so we may only need to assess how this structure relates to our work as designers and whether we are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. A fundamental issue is whether we know how well or badly we are currently doing before we even start to think about improving matters.

Currently, in practice, the clear priority is to satisfy the needs of the client and provided that this is done within the boundaries of all available legislation, most architects, if questioned, would feel that this would be an adequate result. But is it? Do we have a stronger responsibility to society than this would suggest, given that unlike most other professions our work continues to exist and have an impact long after our expertise has been applied?

Satisfying the needs of the client whilst acting within the boundaries of available legislation is a level of effort expected by everyone, from hairdressers to CEOs. There isn’t anything special about fulfilling that requirement. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: does our professional ability and knowledge mean that we should take an extra level of care for everyone and everything affected by our work, even when legislation and guidance are absent?

My feeling is that we do need this. building a building is not like making spoons or shoes, we help to bring a building or a project to fruition that lasts for generations and often has an impact after we are retired or dead. Our thinking has to be rooted in the long term, even if the thinking of the client and funders is rooted in the short-term. By taking a long-term view particularly an ethical view we ought to be able to determine the ‘right thing to do’ and even if we don’t do it, we will have educated ourselves, our colleagues and our clients in the process.

Some of this article was first published in Architects Datafile Magazine.

Implementing Zero Carbon in London

Now that we are almost upon the deadline for the introduction of zero-carbon (GLA) in London I thought that it was timely to comment on it. 

Firstly. Brilliant! In a time when politicians appear to have taken leave of their senses permanently, it is reassuring that here (surrounded by the metropolitan elite) some things stay the same. We have a group of politicians willing to lead on principles rather than on the basis of prompting by tabloids or by their lesser selves. Well done London!

Secondly: Brilliant! We have a piece of zero-carbon legislation that has learned from the recent past, from multiple consultations by DCLG and the Zero Carbon Hub and run with it rather than reinventing this particular wheel. More importantly, it sets a precedent for other devolved authorities to follow. London can afford to lead on this one, to get the idea moving, to introduce developers and their design teams to the idea and to pioneer mechanisms for using the funds in a transparent and timely way so that developers can see the benefits to them. 

Thirdly: There is work still to do, as there is little clear understanding about many of the aspects of the new legislation. Can we claim a credit for making improvements above regulation? For example if the team introduce dimming into the building, can they claim some CO2 reductions below the line of the regulatory calculations. If the designers use a timber structure, can they claim some embodied energy reductions? When are the payments to be made? When the building is designed, or when it is built? There are likely to be differences between the two.

I think that it would be useful if the GLA held some workshops about this new legislation and had an open discussion about these questions, to help to introduce the legislation and to hear from design teams and clients how it can work best for them and for the GLA. It is very important that this new effort succeeds, it is practically the only star left in the low-carbon buildings firmament, so let’s make sure that it burns brightly and it isn’t extinguished at the first sign of difficulty.

‘Heart in the Right Street’ a report by Create Streets

I attended the launch of this report last week, at the invitation of its author, Nicholas Boys-Smith, I felt compelled to do so, as he claimed that I had in some small way inspired him to write it. Two years ago he made a presentation at HTA and at one point I challenged him to back up some of his claims for how certain building types were ‘better’ than others, with evidence. He felt then that his answer was unsatisfactory, and when the opportunity arose to produce this report, he used it to provide a better answer. I may not agree with everything in the report, but I wish everyone took my questions as seriously!


Attendees to the event were given a sort of ‘cheat sheet’ with ten guidelines for how to create good cities, and the report presents the evidence culled from numerous studies to back up the ten points. I paraphrase them as follows

1. Provide Greenery

2. Build more houses than apartments and build at higher density than the suburbs, but lower than necessitates high rises.

3. Build at human scale and never house children in high-rises.

4. Created connected walkable environments

5. Mix up land use with many uses

6. Block sizes should be ‘not too big’ and made up of individual buildings, not super sized buildings occupying a single block

7. Minimise internal communal space and corridors

8. Beauty matters, 

9. Create mixed facades at street level, shops, entrances, etc.

10. Make neighbourhoods dense enough to be walkable, 150-220 homes per hectare.

Most housing designers wouldn’t be too frightened by this, in fact most would support most of them, if not all of them, most of the time. But probably wouldn’t support all of them all of the time. The report is well researched and documented and could be recommended for no other reason than its bibliography which provides any interested party with a serious amount of good reading material. He references Charles Montgomeries Happy Cities book a lot, which is a good thing, as well as academic research from around the world on city living in Singapore, Vancouver, Newcastle, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and, of course, London.

About the only area where I find myself violently disagreeing with Nicholas is on the subject of ‘Beauty’. He maintains that beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder and he points to a lot of research to suggest that people do know what they like, and what they like is not liked by architects. He goes on to suggest that if more new development followed his rules and was also liked by people (because it conformed to a more general sense of beauty), then more high density life would  be allowed to happen and we would all be better off. 

I find it optimistic that changing the appearance of some modern development would make its neighbours welcome it any more than they do, motivated as they often are, by concerns over traffic, schools, and a general incoherent fear of change.

The simple reality, as I see it, is that architects don’t exist to provide what people ‘like’ any more than any artist exists to provide what people like. You might say that architecture is not ‘Art’ but you would be wrong. The purpose of Art is not to comfort and reassure, but often to challenge, sometimes startle. I do agree that housing architecture should never terrify or induce fear, that would be going much too far, but trying to create an environment like the Disney Main Street is something housing architects are not supposed to do. That is the job of set designers, a different species entirely. Our job is to create good neighbourhoods where people will want to live, but we must also always deliver good value for our clients. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is a good and well-researched project. It’s aims are positive, and well-meant, but sometimes overstepping the bounds of academic research into populist polemic. All housing architects who take their work seriously should read it and be as knowledgeable about the research as the author is. Housing architecture is a serious responsibility and not to be taken lightly, and this work echoes that seriousness by providing pointers to a lot of recent valuable research, as well as pointing to many areas where further research would be useful and welcome.

A point that doesn’t really come across from the work, although it is one of the ten guidelines, is that suburban density is not high enough to create successful living environments. Much much more of modern housing is built at suburban density than any other density, and in terms of numbers, the towers that he dislikes so much will only ever provide a fraction of the new housing in cities, whether they are liked or not. Suburban density causes so many other problems in the form of long commutes, high CO2 emissions, use of agricultural land, than high-rises do, but the idea of suburbia is not disliked by the general population nearly as much as they dislike high-rise living. 

If this book has any impact on policy, I would like it to prompt a review of the density of new suburbs. We are fooling ourselves by thinking that low-rise low-density suburbs are the answer to any of our housing problems.

On the one had Nicholas would have it that the people are right, to seek their idea of beauty and to decry high-rise living, but on the other hand they are wrong to hanker for the suburbs and the inevitable burden on the planet and personal isolation it brings. I think he wants to have his cake and eat it. But, don’t we all?

Why we need to stay in the EU

The prospect of the UK Leaving the EU fills me with dismay. I listen to the rhetoric from politicians and wonder about their motivations in proposing an exit. Do any of those proposing to leave have any real understanding of what it would mean? What would a future for the UK be like outside of the EU. Sitting like an unwelcome houseguest at the fringes of the party, furtively stealing beers from the fridge?

When I survey the landscape I am most familiar with, particularly around sustainable buildings, I reflect that much of the impetus for environmental legislation in the UK has come about through pressure from the EU through the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive (EPBD). I suspect that, left to its own devices, due to the UK Housing sector being dominated by a small number of housebuilders, the industry would have fought off all attempts to implement energy efficiency improvements.  Without the gentle but firm push in the small of the back from the EU, our homes would probably be much less efficient. We wouldn’t have an EPC, and whatever it’s faults, at least it is a step in the right direction.

Now that the Govt has scrapped the planned 2016 zero carbon legislation, the next push for improving our buildings will come from Europe, the EPBD requires that all EU states enact legislation leading to Nearly Zero Energy Buildings from 2020. Again, that gentle but firm push. This is something that will be good for consumers who buy homes, good for the businesses that build them and help to push down our CO2 emissions.

I imagine that the same goes for the car industry, and even though the image of the EU industry has been seriously damaged by the recent emissions scandals, at least the intention to reduce emissions is there in legislation. Given that the UK’s default position on improving emissions regulations has been to vote against them, and given that London in particular has been failing to meet EU emission standards for some time, and will continue to do so for some time to come, our record of standing alone on this issue is not a particularly proud one.

On renewable energy we are again struggling to meet EU targets, and thanks to recent Govt cuts, are not even sure how we plan to meet them. There has been no suggestion that these targets are unwelcome, or that we are unable to meet them, in fact the minister stated that the Govt has every intention of meeting its obligations. While the arrival of wind turbines have been unwelcome in some areas, they  enable us to reduce our imports of coal and oil and help us to reduce pollution levels and CO2 emissions. Again, without a push from the EU, would we have adopted these targets? On the evidence of the current Government, probably not. Or if we had, they would be voted out again with every change in the political landscape.

While our politicians vacillate every five years or so, whether they like wind farms or don’t, whether they like nuclear or don’t, and whether they think fracking is a good idea or they don’t, in the background there sits the EU,with a long term plan to reform the energy markets, to reduce emissions, to introduce more renewable energy and to make our buildings more efficient. Politicians come and go, but the EU remains as a stable influence on our policies and standards. This stability helps business to invest, and gives purpose and direction to research and development, as EU strategies tend to remain in place longer than national or local government cycles.

The exitmongers complain that this is interference in our democratically elected system of government, I say it’s a good thing. Without it we would be worse off. The EU acts as a brake on occasional foolishness, a calm voice in times of crisis and a firm guide on environmental matters. It’s a bit like a parent, the interference is unwelcome at times, but it’s reassuring that someone is there for guidance when you need it.

Is London going to go Zero Carbon?

Business Green reported an interchange last week between the Mayor and Green Assembly Member Darren Johnson  in response to his question about the Mayors position on Zero Carbon homes. Boris’s reported response was

“What we are looking at is making sure that we can continue, through the London Plan, to ensure that Zero Carbon Homes are delivered in London and we will be issuing further guidance in due course to provide industry with the certainty it needs about how to do that.” 

Boris reported that London aims to achieve a 60% reduction in CO2 by 2025 and has achieved 14% to date. This represents a per capita reduction of 20% as London’s population has grown by 600k during the reporting period.

It is heartening to hear these words from the Mayor, and I hope that the candidates for the Mayoralty are listening. If devolution is to mean anything it should promote the ability of cities in the UK to sidestep the damaging and short-sighted environmental policies of central government.

Having recently completed a large zero carbon scheme at Hanham Hall with low-rise construction and learned what it means for most of the UK’s housing development, I thought that it would be useful to share below some analysis that we have done to assess how tall buildings can achieve the zero carbon standard. Given that many of the buildings that are proposed for the capital in future are going to be tall it is interesting to assess how the regulations might affect those building types.

The analysis has been done for a twenty five and a forty storey tower with six units per floor to demonstrate how different systems meet the targets. We tested gas boilers, CHP with gas backup, all-electric heating and hot water and finally Air Source Heat Pumps. Three of the four rely on a communal hot water distribution system, the all electric system being the exception.

Energy Options to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

Energy Options for a 25 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

 

40-storey

Energy Options fora 40 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

What the research shows is that for taller towers there is no difficulty in meeting the current definition of zero carbon. In fact it shows that achieving it is technically easier than achieving the London Plan, as the London Plan has a lower emissions target than the Zero Carbon definition. This is assuming that there is no special treatment for electric heating or hot water, unlike the current version of SAP which is based on comparative performance rather than on a definite figure as set out in the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition.

Based on these figures I would say that towers should be forced to meet the lower emissions target of 10kg/CO2/sqm since in both gas-based options this target can be met. Perhaps an all-electric version could be left as it is at the higher 14kg/CO2/sqm.

It also shows that a very efficient 25-storey building can meet the targets irrespective of the energy system used, the top graphs shows that it can achieve the target in all four options, even an all-electric option. The 40-storey is not so easy. My assumption is that only the roof can be used to house renewable energy,  but for the 40-storey version it would be necessary in the electric options to put some pv panels on the facade to reach the target.

But of course the technical success is not the full picture. In addition to the Fabric Energy Efficiency target of 39kwh/sqm/yr that apartments have to hit, and towers have no difficulty doing so, there is the Carbon Compliance which is shown in the graphs above, and again there doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for towers, but finally there is the Allowable Solutions element which says that whatever CO2 emissions remain must be offset. This offset is achieved by multiplying the tonnes of CO2 emitted, by the figure of 30 years, and by an agreed sum for each tonne. Currently the GLA uses £60/tonne. This produces a figure of approximately £1,000 per apartment to offset the emissions elsewhere.

Sadly the all electric system is unwelcome in London as it it not seen as ‘futureproof’ according to the gas-led ideology preferred by the GLA. This is understandable as an all-electric system does not emit the lowest CO2 emissions possible, at current levels of grid CO2 intensity. What will be interesting to see is how long before the grid CO2 intensity drops to a low enough level to change that thinking. The Committee for Climate Change has suggested that we need to stop burning gas by 2035 to meet our carbon budgets. What is the point in investing in gas burning equipment and networks now if they have to be decommissioned in less than twenty years time?

Certainly an all-electric system is the cheapest to install, avoiding the central distribution system, and it could be argued that an all electric system is just as futureproof as a hot water led system as the Grid is inherently flexible. Interestingly our research also suggests that in the majority of cases an all-electric system is cheaper than a communal system for residents as the standing charges are lower, even if the energy bills are higher than gas. The standing charge is used to create a sinking fund to replace the communal system. If there is no communal system the sinking fund is either not needed or is much smaller, thus lowering residents total bill. The cheapest system of all to run is an individual gas boiler, but no-one would consider installing that into a tower, and it has a higher maintenance and replacement cost than an all-electric system.

A major hole in this analysis is that it is carried out using SAP, which is pretty poor at dealing with apartment buildings. The energy for pumping heat around the building is ignored, as is the energy for ventilating corridors, pumping hot water, lifts, communal lighting etc, etc. Since the communal spaces in these buildings are not heated, SBEM isn’t particularly useful either. As buildings get taller these additional energy uses and losses will become more a more significant part of their energy use, we need better tools to assess them, and more regulations to deal with their particular demands.

 

Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!

A lesson in Ministerial Defence or Defiance?

During this week The Rt Hon. A. Rudd Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change gave a strong demonstration of why she has been appointed to her post, namely her ability to defend an indefensible position. A necessary attribute for all Tory ministers in the current Cabinet, it would appear. If this demonstration is anything to go by, she has a long career ahead of her, hopefully not defending the indefensible, but promoting the new direction that the Government will take to enable the UK to meet its obligations to reduce the risk of climate change and meet the aspirations of the electorate.

You can watch the full story unfold here, I recommend having a glass of something strong by your side.

She was called to give evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee to explain why she had claimed the following two opposing views in quick succession. The first to the House of Commons, to say that the UK was going to meet its renewable energy targets by 2020, and the second where she wrote to her counterparts in the ministries for Transport,the Cabinet Office and The Treasury to ask for their help as under current policies the UK will not meet its renewable energy targets by 2020.

I can’t help wondering whether the leak was a political move to assign blame for this mess on the shoulders of colleagues in the Cabinet Office and Treasury whose decisions have left DECC with no room for manoeuvre after a series of swingeing cuts to renewable energy subsidies which have left the industry in disarray and investors running in the opposite direction. Among the suggestions for solving the problem was the suggestion that the UK could buy in renewable energy from other countries through interconnectors. When pressed on this matter, she said that this was not her preferred approach!

The explanations that were given to the Committee for the confusion were as follows:

– due to shortfalls in progress with renewable heat and transport, the result of current policies will be 11.5% of renewable energy by 2020 instead of 15%, a shortfall of 4.5% of all UK energy or a shortfall of 23.3% of the 15% target. Not a small amount of energy.

When asked whether the shortfall was a result of the recent cuts to subsidies and support for renewable energy, she responded:

– ‘we are going to meet the planned target for electricity, so we don’t think that cutting the subsidies will make any difference’

– ‘electricity is on target to provide 30% of electricity by 2020’

– ‘we don’t think that the answer is to provide more (renewable) electricity’

-‘ there is a greater role for electricity in transport’

Bizarrely the Committe didn’t ask the obvious question here, which is: if transport is to make a greater use of electricity to achieve its renewable energy targets, then wouldn’t it be sensible to make sure that there is greater capacity in the generation market to provide that renewable electricity? If we can provide more renewable electricity and (God forbid) exceed our electricity target to compensate for the lack of progress with heat and transport, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Sadly , no such question was forthcoming.

The Minister should be writing to the Dept of Transport to tell them that they are going to make use of more renewable electricity, that DECC is going to provide it, and to propose that they to work together to ensure that there are fleets of electric cars  and other vehicles ready to use this electricity by 2020.

There was also an opportunity to point out to the Minster that the cheapest way of meeting the heat targets is to reduce energy use, and some concerted action, like a replacement for the Green Deal would be a good start, but again, sadly, no such question was posed.

When asked how much of a fine the UK could face if it doesn’t meet its targets, the Minster robustly claimed not to know how much, and explained this away by saying ‘I am commited to making sure that the UK meets its targets’,  which is very reassuring, but at the same time a bit unbelieveable. The Minister was asked what policies she planned to introduce to meet the shortfall and responded with this gem:

-‘I have some ideas that I would like to take forward’ which are curently being evaluated under the Current Spending Review. I take this as Ministerial speak for , ‘I have made my point, I have given the options to the Treasury, they will say no, and I will be absolved of responsiblity’.

Expecting to produce new policies, implement them and to convert 4.5% of the UK’s energy demand to renewable sources by 2020 is simply unrealistic. It would be unlikely to happen even in a sympathetic Government, but particularly in the current fiscal environment where cuts to tax credits are off the table which will mean that cuts to absolutely everything else will be on the table, and given the recent behaviour of this Government there is zero chance that renewable energy targets are going to be a priority.

And in Other News...

There were a couple of unrelated gems in the session that will draw hollow laughter from many in the energy sector. When asked about investment plans for nuclear she stated:

-‘the  last thing the energy sector needs is surprises’

and when asked about the options available for EDF if the Chinese were to pull out of the Hinkley deal, she stated without blinking, that

-if the Chinese pull out, EDF will find another investor’

Cue hollow laughter by every economist.

Where is the backbench opposition to Green cuts?

When the Tories won the election, I asked myself, and some colleagues, ‘who will keep them in check’? The answer from one particularly wise colleague was: ‘they will, they will keep themselves in check’. So it has proved to be. The response to the tax credit cuts from backbenchers and from Tories in the Lords has been decisive. (I was particularly surprised by the appearance of Lord Lawson voting against the Govt, I had long since dismissed him as a climate-change denying basket case, but it appears I might have been wrong about him, climate-change denier apart, he isn’t a basket case). Why then has there not been a similar response to the Tory dismantling of environmental legislation? In case you need a reminder of the damage, Here is a handy list, I suggest that you cut it out and keep it. Has there been any response from the Lords or the backbenches? No there hasn’t. Labour have been too busy deciding whether to elect Corbyn, and having elected him, whether they have consigned themselves to the opposition for a decade. [It is notable that the time when an opposition is most needed in modern politics is in the first year of a new term, so the policy of losing party leaders throwing themselves on their swords is exactly the wrong approach for an electorate that needs a strong opposition at the beginning of the new term. We don’t need a strong opposition leader to turn up when most of the policy changes have been made].

In the end, politicians across the spectrum don’t see these cuts to environmental legislation as a vote loser. The damage this is going to do to the renewables industry or to the climate is perceived to be either too small or too distant for them to worry about it. Whatever negative impact these cuts will have are too distant for politicians to worry about. What is startling about this is that the outcome is more similar to the impact of tax credits than they think. But since most of the people affected don’t have a vote in the UK they are not being considered in quite the same way.

The outcome of climate change on those affected will be much, much worse than any tax credit cuts. Instead of being a bit worse off, millions of people will be displaced. This article mentions some of the countries where a lot of people are likely to be displaced by sea level rises, picture the problems in East Africa if Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are strongly affected by climate change, as is predicted, and how an influx of refugees from those countries would affect Sudan, Uganda and the Congo? Given how much impact a mere two million refugees from Syria is having on the EU, how do we think the worlds politics, industries and economies would be affected by the movement of 150 million people?

Somehow we haven’t managed to couch the message about the dangers of runaway climate change in the right way. It is too much about energy, and too much about what needs to happen in the UK. We need to reinforce the message that the position of the UK on the world stage is at stake here, not as a Trident wielding superpower, but as a compassionate nation full of sympathy for those victimised by circumstances, through no fault of their own, impoverished by their history and at risk from our thoughtlessness.

2 Billion Cars

2 Billion Cars, a book by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

This book is a very interesting read, particularly at this moment, with the backdrop of the VW emissions scandal in the media. The book covers the recent history of both the oil industry and the car industry, in the context of regulation, efficiency and the drive to reduce emissions.

In particular, the part where the book describes how European and Japanese manufacturers made progress in the US market when they offered more fuel-efficient cars with lower exhaust emissions makes for painful reading. American manufacturers fought tooth and nail against higher efficiency and emission standards for decades, and watched with surprise when they were blindsided by foreign manufacturers who saw this demand coming. Those manufacturers must be feeling a little schadenfreude at the moment as they watch VW and other manufacturers admit that they were cheating on their emissions scores.

There are good chapters on the oil industry and how it works, on the growing demand for cars in Asian economies, and on the regulatory regime in California. The book is a really useful reference on the development of fuel-efficient cars including hybrids, the introductions of regulations worldwide and the resistance of the US-based car industry to improving fuel efficiency.  I expect that the book will appeal most to people interested in transport and sustainability problems (which ought to be most of us!)
Some of the points made in the book

1. Since growth in car usage in developed countries has flatlined, or started to decrease, all the growth in vehicles will come from developing countries, with annual growth rates in vehicles about 7-8 percent annually. Whatever India and China do will have the biggest effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The recent pictures of Beijing and Shanghai smog are testament to the growth in those cities of the number of cars but equally their failure to control emissions. (to be fair, not all of it is from cars)

2. There are large parts of the world where infrastructure costs mean that people will continue to use their cars and will not have public transport available to them in the foreseeable future.

3. The chapter on oil is particularly interesting, and how the oil ‘market’ is really not a market, but is in fact carefully managed supply by the oil producers, many of who are using oil to prop up their economies, and often they are among the few non-democracies (or failed democracies) on the planet. When you think of the success of the developed economies that based their success on ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ you wonder at the current level of success being enjoyed by places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela and how they are going to make use of it. The signs so far is that they are going to waste the opportunity. Therefore, making the personal passenger vehicle more environmentally-friendly is key if the rest of us are to stop this haemorraging of wealth into corrupt nations that aren’t going to use it wisely.

4. The chapter on the oil industry also highlighted that we are nowhere near peak oil. The amount of unconventional sources such as fracked gas and tar sands is large enough to blow any chance of staying within the 2 Degrees target. So gas and oil usage will have to be further regulated if we have any chance of managing climate change risks to acceptable levels. (is there such a thing?)

5. The authors are very clear that the best way to promote energy independence and reduce emissions is to impose very high fuel performance standards. Government, they say, should never “bet on a technology winner”, but should instead make performance-based goals the only measure of success, both for fuel performance standards, and exhaust standards. (there are interesting parallels here between the support for nuclear energy by some governments and coal by others)

6. The chapter on California was particularly interesting, highlighting why it is in a unique position to influence national policy on sustainable transportation, and how it can therefore influence policy globally. There are parallels with the role of London in the UK, setting higher standards for buildings and cars, and trialling new technologies before other cities. Sadly, the book was published before Tesla really got going, and I hope that the authors do a revised edition soon to cover the meteoric rise of the electric car worldwide in the last five years.

7. The chapters on the history of the American car manufacturers are instructive for a number of reasons. It is an object lesson on how large corporations lose contact with their customers and focus on doing what they have always done instead of being innovative and market-facing. (The idea that markets are always alive to the demands of the market is an over-simplification of reality)I am reminded of the behaviour of UK housebuilders here as they avoid regulation by complaining that the market doesn’t demand energy efficient homes, and that that adding efficiency increases costs.

8. The way that the US manufacturers used perverse incentives to create gas-guzzling vehicles at the point where they should have been investing in R&D of more fuel efficient engines and vehicles tells you a lot about the behaviour of corporates. What well-run company would have bought Hummer? General Motors, thats who.

9. The authors felt that one of the best hopes to increase fuel efficiency when the book was written was to use plug-in hybrids, like the unexpectedly successful Prius. They rightly point out that hydrogen-powered fuel cells remain a laboratory project.

My only quibble with the book is that its already a little out of date, the authors failed to mention the potential for renewable energy and battery storage to play a major role in energy management and the use of smart grids, but since these ideas are relatively recent perhaps its forgivable. Another reason for a new edition.