Climate change discussed at Southwark magazine launch

By Matt Ross - Thu 19 December 2019, 12:54 pm

"We've already surpassed one degree of global warming," said Kristen Buida, manager of the London Climate Change Partnership.

“Most of our hospitals, our care homes are overheating. Go to any train station when it’s over 30 degrees, and you’ll see the disruption.” Climate change, she emphasised, isn’t merely a future threat: it’s already with us.

And in our highly interconnected world, pointed out Gianluca Pescaroli – a lecturer in business continuity and organisational resilience at University College London – the extreme weather events fostered by climate change have “cascade effects” that ripple out through society.

Heatwaves or flooding, for example, can knock out power supplies, transport links and communications – creating much wider problems.

Addressing these threats is a priority for Southwark Council, said Councillor Richard Livingstone, cabinet member for environment, transport and the climate emergency.

Chairing a debate among built environment professionals at the launch event for the latest issue of Southwark magazine – held in Southwark’s Sustainable Workspaces environmental business hub – he noted that the council has set itself “a huge challenge: back in March, we agreed that we should as a borough become carbon neutral by 2030.”

And while the council works to drive down carbon emissions, he added, it must meanwhile harden communities and infrastructure against the disruption created by extreme weather events. “Over 60% of residents live less than 10m above sea level, so resilience is a huge issue here,” he pointed out. “If we’re looking at putting more air conditioning into our buildings to manage the impact of climate change, how do we make sure that we’re not making the problem worse by increasing carbon emissions?”

One key task is that of making new developments more sustainable – and Kristy Lansdown, a project director at developer Lendlease, pointed out that the company’s flagship Elephant Park scheme has a net carbon zero target.

That’s made possible by initiatives such as the project’s in-house energy centre – which will distribute power and hot water to the development’s 3000 homes, retailers and businesses – and advances in sustainable building techniques: “Our team achieved 95% in terms of reducing construction waste last year,” she said.

Transport is important too, said Omer Weinberger, a managing partner at Avanton – which has three big developments in the Old Kent Road area. Because these are set close to transport links a couple of miles from central London, he explained, there’s no need to incorporate car parking: “Part of sustainability is healthy living,” he said, noting that residents will “be able to commute to major employment hubs by cycle within 15 minutes.”

Building materials need to change, commented Councillor Leo Pollack, cabinet member for social regeneration, great estates and new council homes. “Concrete and steel are the most practical ways of building, but the carbon emissions associated with them are enormous.

We need to look at building with timber,” he said, highlighting the potential to plant hardwoods around London. “The Green Belt has done its job of preventing urban sprawl,” he added. “We can think about creating a forest around London that actively contributes to its regeneration.”

Meanwhile, Pollack explained, the council is putting insulation, renewable energy generation and power storage facilities into its housing stock: reusing existing buildings is almost always more carbon-efficient than building new ones.

“Embodied energy is critical: the elephant in the room,” he said, pointing to plans to build new homes on the top of tower blocks. “That both improves the thermal efficiency of the existing building, and preserves its embodied energy,” he explained, enabling the council to “combat both the environmental crisis and the housing crisis, while not allowing our efforts on one to frustrate our efforts on the other.”

Adopting new techniques and technologies brings its own challenges, though. Audience members pointed out that previous initiatives to fit biomass boilers had created new problems, such as air pollution and long-distance shipping of woodchip fuel. “That’s seen as redundant technology now, but at the time it was seen as very environmentally-friendly,” one recalled. “Are we backing the wrong horses again?”

Proper testing and experimentation is one way to find out – and this requires the cooperation of national agencies, said one developer, noting that his efforts to fit a water source heat pump to a riverside development had been halted by the Environment Agency. “A little more collaboration with government agencies would be helpful,” he said.

Developers must also be ready to “adapt and change your technology as you move forward,” said Lansdown, noting that Elephant Park’s Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant will in part run on biomethane. And Pollack highlighted the need to make new buildings adaptable – allowing future occupiers to move internal walls, for example.

Nonetheless, added Lansdown, “there will be technology coming forward that we don’t know about yet; we’re not always going to get it right. The key thing is to believe in where we need to get to, and to have the ambition to make the change.”

That struck a chord with Councillor Johnson Situ, cabinet member for growth, development and planning. “Here in Southwark, we’ve got a track record of coming together to respond to big issues,” he said.

Two decades ago, “far too many of my friends and neighbours were in under-performing schools. And early this decade, we had employment levels that languished below the London average.” But now nine out of ten schools are rated Good or Outstanding, and employment levels surpass the London-wide figures.

“The challenges we face are significant, not just in terms of climate change, but also in ensuring that our communities remain at the heart of plans for growth,” Situ concluded. “But we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.”

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