As the built environment sector becomes more aware of the climate crisis, Anthony Probert says we need to move past certification and ratings systems to achieving long-term sustainability through harder-hitting, site-specific, user-focused solutions
8.5 years of One Planet Living - what have I learned?
For the last 8 years, I’ve been privileged to work on the frontline of the fight for a sustainable built environment. Sadly, however, this week is my last at Bioregional. To mark the occasion, I promised the comms team/thought that I would reflect on my time at the organisation, the challenges I’ve faced, what I’ve learned and what I hope for the future. Here are 81/2 confessions of a sustainability professional…
- Sustainability is still niche
In September, 7.6 million people around the world took to the streets to protest for action on climate change - me included (as pictured in the header photo with my son). In the last year, thanks to leaders like Sir David, XR and Greta and the other school strikers globally, there’s been a remarkable increase in coverage of environmental issues. But taking action to live more sustainably is still niche. Google tells me that there are 7.5billion people in the world. This means 99.9% of the global population were not out marching. Considering the scale of what we need to do, and the little time we have, we need to reach further. Much further.
- Question: When is a sustainability strategy not a sustainability strategy?
Answer: When it’s written as part of a planning application. As part of my work with a London Borough’s planning team, I’ve read over 750 sustainability statements for development proposals. Yet hardly any of them could actually be considered sustainable. The majority promise to cut carbon emissions by 35%, as required by policy. They offer a few token promises about construction waste and selection of low-impact materials. But they don’t offer the change we need. Policy and building regulations need to align with science-based trajectories for carbon reduction. As I’ve argued in a previous blog, there is no space for shades of green.
- But I don’t blame them
As Development Manager for Bioregional Homes, I’ve experienced first-hand how difficult it is to actually get anything built. If there was one type of development everyone could support, you’d think it would be zero-carbon eco-communities designed and built with community groups. But we are not immune to the pressures facing developers. Availability and cost of land, planning regulations (and case officers’ interpretation of them), access to finance (and having to manage it), community pressure, all combine to form the biggest of challenges. So I don’t blame developers for simply jumping through hoops to attain planning permission. Responsible developers should be better supported or the race to the bottom will continue.
- The biggest players are waking up
The last few years I’ve been working with Landsec, the largest commercial property development company in the UK, on the sustainability of some of its mixed-use schemes. Thanks to visionaries within their organisation, Landsec is truly leading the way in sustainability.
In 2019, I was involved in developing the UKGBC’s net zero carbon definition which went beyond operational carbon emissions to address embodied (or ‘upfront’) emissions. Which developer, I wondered, would spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to offset these emissions, entirely voluntarily? The answer is Landsec. Will others follow
- Sustainability needs to come in-house
My dream is that one day, organisations like Bioregional will be obsolete. Sustainability will be ingrained into the culture and DNA of organisations and into the job specs of its employees. Sustainability will not be an add-on, bolted onto the end of project meetings, or an annoyance, but incorporated without thought. This will be achieved through education. I’ve been lecturing on a construction project management course at the University of Brighton, where sustainable construction is a compulsory module. I’ve seen how a new generation of construction professionals are embracing sustainability, which will lead to a rapid step-change in the industry.
- Sustainability needs to diversify
My colleagues are lovely – but we’re all the same! Majority young, majority middle class, and majority white. We’re a bubble. To achieve the change we need, the sustainability sector needs to appeal to and include people of different backgrounds and better represent the communities for whom we are building homes, infrastructure and facilities.
- I’ve never been more determined to fight the good fight
Since joining Bioregional in the summer of 2011 I’ve taken the responsibility of working for the organisation very seriously. I am inspired every day by our CEO and management team, my colleagues and the work they are doing, by BedZED – our pioneering eco-village, and by our clients. As the issues have become more pressing, my enthusiasm for addressing them has grown. I am grateful to have had a job which feels so important. You can’t help but buy into Bioregional’s ethos personally and professionally, it gets under your skin and changes your character, for the better. There’s no going back.
- There's hope
This is the most important of all my points. I’ve seen the impact that One Planet Living is having around the world. More than 600,000 people are living in, working at or visiting places with a deep commitment to achieving One Planet Living. We’re working with developments that are achieving zero-carbon from day one of residents moving in. We have partners that are committing to cutting carbon emissions in line with climate science. Bioregional has never been busier.
Alongside this is the move towards a greener grid, electric vehicles, the rise in vegetarianism and veganism, the mainstreaming of green politics, and of course the activism we see every Friday in cities around the globe. All of which are having an impact. Change can happen quickly when top-down meets bottom-up. Look at drink driving - 40 years ago it was socially acceptable, now it’s wholly taboo. Smoking in pubs, let alone offices, seems prehistoric. Driving diesel cars and eating meat every day will go the same way.
8.5 The twist…
I’m not going away. The organisation I am joining, Brick by Brick, is adopting One Planet Living as its sustainability framework, building sustainable homes and communities across south London. You can leave Bioregional, but Bioregional will never leave you.
Learn more about One Planet Living, our sustainability framework that helps organisations create ambitious sustainability action plans.