Net zero is not enough

The UK’s target of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 is a worthy, world-leading ambition. The science shows that it’s critical we reduce emissions now in order to avoid catastrophic climate change in the next century – but even with reductions, temperatures are still expected to rise by two to three degrees by 2100. How should the built environment sector prepare for what lies ahead? And how can we make sure that the burdens and benefits of both achieving net zero and adapting to climate change are shared by everyone?

As part of London Climate Action Week, Future of London looked beyond net zero. We discussed the roles of green infrastructure and regenerative architecture, the importance of tackling both health inequalities and environmental inequalities, and how we can better involve local communities and collaborate across sectors.


Net zero’s limitations

Reducing imported emissions will require behaviour change

The UK’s net zero by 2050 target only refers to emissions within the country’s territorial boundaries. But we import a lot of emissions from overseas and through international supply chains – 70% more than we produce – through our demand for new products, building materials and so on. “It’s not enough to reach net zero in the UK, if our demand for products from overseas remains as high as it is today,” cautioned Ben Smith, Director, Integrated City Planning (Energy and Climate Change), Arup.

To reduce this demand, all of us will need to consume less. There are lots of different ways that the public and private sector can drive behaviour change, as FoL’s Climate Change Needs Behaviour Change event explored – but it remains a difficult conversation to have with the wider public.

Zarina Ahmad, Climate Change and Environment Officer, CEMVO Scotland, suggested that involving and empowering local people, in community energy schemes for example, is more likely to support behavioural change. “In conversations about behaviour change, the focus is often on the individual,” she said. “But for marginalised communities in particular, it can feel very alienating to be made to feel responsible for something that’s out of your control.”

Offsetting will be critical but it remains complicated

The net zero target allows for offsetting, but how the built environment sector can – and should – offset is very complicated. “We need to start thinking now about how we catalyse a more mature carbon-offsets market in the UK – and do so in a way that delivers the ecological, economic and social benefits that we want beyond just the carbon sequestration,” argued Ben.

However, Tom Dollard, Associate Partner & Head of Sustainable Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards, expressed his reservations about offsetting, asserting that developers and architects should still do everything they can to reduce emissions on site.

Tom Dollard shared photos of his home office, as an example of what can be done with recycled materials. Image courtesy of Tom Dollard.

Being carbon neutral doesn’t add anything positive to our environment

For Tom, two of the key limitations of net zero are that it’s still not clearly defined, particularly for new builds, and that the lack of metered data showing how buildings are performing makes it hard to prove that buildings are net zero.

Nevertheless, even with a clear definition and more data, building lots of new net zero buildings will still produce emissions. “We need to be looking more seriously at regenerative architecture, which means building using waste and recycled materials,” said Tom. He envisages a future where there will be huge factories and reclamation sites around London for recycling buildings.

Panellists and attendees stressed the importance of nature-based solutions in the fight against climate change. Image courtesy of Ben Smith.

Several panellists and attendees also stressed the important role that nature-based solutions can – and should – play. Green infrastructure is crucial for biodiversity, carbon capture, water management and temperature cooling – all of which lessen the impact of climate change. We need to do more to bring nature into the city and incorporate it into the built environment at a much broader level – beyond the greening of individual sites.

It’s also beneficial for people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing – although, as Zarina pointed out, the pandemic has highlighted that certain communities, particularly Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, have limited access to green space. And, as discussed in FoL’s recent parks and green space event, the built environment sector must work harder to change this.

Reducing emissions won’t be enough to prevent us experiencing the impacts of climate change

Placing too much emphasis on net zero targets also risks overshadowing the crucial work that the built environment sector still needs to do to adapt to the changes in climate that are now inevitable. Kristen Guida, London Climate Change Partnership Manager, GLA, explained the work that the Partnership has been doing to quantify and visualise how climate change might affect London.

This includes the city’s high exposure to surface water flooding, possible water shortages by the 2040s, and increasingly high temperatures in domestic buildings. “Zero carbon is not enough,” said Kristen. “We need to better understand the risks and be more aware of the ways in which the built environment moderates and exacerbates the impacts of climate change.”

Healthy urbanism

Linking human health to planetary health

Helen Pineo’s THRIVES framework for sustainable, healthy urbanism. Image courtesy of Helen Pineo.

“Because of social and environmental injustice, certain communities are more affected by shocks than others,” said Dr Helen Pineo, Lecturer in Healthy and Sustainable Built Environments, UCL. “Covid-19 has been one of those shocks. We’ve seen that low income and minority ethnic groups have been disproportionately affected – and the same is happening with climate change.”

Helen shared a conceptual framework that explains how built environment practitioners can do more to support health, from decisions about buildings to city-wide strategic planning. At the heart of this is planetary health, a way of talking about human health that emphasises how interrelated it is with the health of the planet.

Breaking down silos

Whilst there has been an increasing amount of discussion within the sector over the last ten years about how we can promote health, this is often separate from sustainability discussions. However, health needs to be at the heart of all climate strategies and policies, something that net zero targets risk overlooking.

Several panellists reiterated this point about the need to break down silos in order to take meaningful action against climate change. “As long as we see climate change as a purely ‘environmental’ issue, it will limit the built environment sector’s capacity to address health and social justice,” argued Kristen. The importance of thinking more broadly across sectors and priorities so that our environments work for everybody has been a key theme running through the Achieving Net Zero programme.

Targeting vulnerable groups

The parallels between particular communities’ Covid-19 vulnerability and their vulnerability to climate change highlights the need for, and the benefits of, more cross-sector working. Helen’s suggestions for how the built environment sector could create healthier places include looking beyond the boundaries of a development to think about how it will affect other locations and people over time, and targeting interventions to address structural health inequalities.


Poverty and deprivation makes communities more vulnerable to climate change. The London Climate Change Partnership has been mapping which groups in London are most vulnerable. Image courtesy of Kristen Guida.

Similarly, Kristen explained that the London Climate Change Partnership has been mapping vulnerability to climate change and starting to think about how these maps can be used in decision-making, such as who to give the Mayor’s Grow Back Greener grants to. The sector needs to understand how to target climate programmes and projects to those who need it the most, so as not to disadvantage people further.

Inclusive cities

Exacerbating inequality

Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted stark health, socio-economic and racial inequalities. Achieving net zero will not be enough if we don’t address climate change as a social justice issue, as well as an environmental one.

Poverty and deprivation make communities less resilient and able to adapt, and sustainable and green solutions can end up exacerbating inequality if practitioners don’t specifically consider it when designing solutions – such as energy efficiency measures that cause homes to overheat.

But as both Kristen and Zarina pointed out, climate justice means not only thinking about who is going to be most affected by climate change. It also means making sure that the built environment sector includes more diverse voices in the decision-making processes for climate strategies, policies, funding and initiatives.

Clockwise from left to right: Zarina Ahmad, Sophie Nellis, Kristen Guida, Ben Smith, Tom Dollard and Helen Pineo.

‘Doing with’ people rather than ‘doing to’ people

To ensure that no community is left behind, Zarina suggested that the built environment sector should:

  • think about ‘community’ not just in geographical terms but also as communities of interest, such as ethnic minorities.
  • make sure decision-making bodies are truly representative of everyone
  • communicate in a way that’s accessible to everyone, but adapt the format to suit the intended audience
  • target engagement strategies: the Climate Challenge Fund in Scotland has done targeted work with ethnic minority communities and there are now over 150 projects being run with ethnic minority communities across Scotland
  • encourage more minority groups into the sector, by creating more career pathways and better opportunities.

Community energy schemes, such as the work Repowering is doing in London, highlight the benefits of involving more ethnic minority communities in climate change policies and programmes. Not only do they reduce fuel poverty and provide training and employment for local people, but they also give people a voice and sense of ownership.

During the Q&A, we also discussed the role of planners in delivering the net zero ambition, the skills and training we need in order to drive a green recovery and break down silos, and the ways in which the current model of development needs to change in order to build more sustainable, inclusive and healthier buildings and places.

Net Zero is Not Enough was the final event in our Achieving Net Zero programme. But you can read and watch all of the insight we’ve gained over the course of the programme here – including our conference webinars and our best practice case studies. FoL will be publishing our Achieving Net Zero report in February 2021. Sign up to our mailing list for the latest updates.