Adopting a new and innovative approach to fighting climate change

In their recent report on climate change, the Environmental Agency’s prevailing message is morbid: 'Adapt or die'. Our environmental specialists explore how our approach to climate change must be refined for us to see significant and promising progress in reducing the built environment's harm to the planet.

 

The government agency paints a chilling picture of what may lie in store for the UK unless we act. The article challenges us to collaborate in tackling the root cause as well as the effects of climate change. But this call to arms has been sounded many times before to limited effect. While there are several excellent examples where the collaboration between the private and public sector have yielded excellent results, the reality is few and far between. We must change our approach.

 

Climate change is affecting our day-to-day lives

The Environment Agency report highlights that, now more than ever before, the effects of climate change can be felt everywhere; from the need to adapt new infrastructure through to our everyday lives. Droughts are becoming more and more common resulting in higher prices on UK produce. Heat waves and rainstorms will become more extreme and make life very difficult for vulnerable people across the country. Even the pollution of our rivers can in part be traced to climate change as more intense rainfalls cause more soil erosion, resulting in more nutrients reaching our rivers. In short, climate change is no longer seen as just a matter about flooding and forest fires, but about almost every aspect of how we live and work.

 

The drawbacks of the cost-benefit approach to climate change

So what must change to increase the uptake of the virtual “call to arms”? The change needed can be summed up in one word: pragmatism. Historically, every collaboration effort has been focused on carefully ensuring that the cost-benefit ratio for each participant meets a predetermined benefit level. This has led to efforts to try to minimise input against a maximum output. With infinite money available, this is a very sound economical principal - but it has two major drawbacks.

Adopting the cost-benefit approach prevents innovative thinking. Innovation, by its very definition, includes an element of uncertainty (it’s untried design after all) and as such it's very hard to quantify the benefits leading to innovation, though often mentioned, they are rarely implemented.

It also prevents pooling of resources. With an obsessive focus on cost-benefit there has to be a very clear set of contributors and beneficiaries for each project. This means that assets, such as land, can only be used in a project if the owner of the asset is duly compensated there and then.

To add to these issues, many of the climate change improvements we seek, and in fact need, cannot be easily quantified. For example, planting vegetation in the upper part of a catchment is likely to reduce flooding, but we do not know exactly how much, and it may cause drought conditions to worsen as the vegetation consumes more water.

The solution – climate credits?

So what can we do? The most promising system is one where we look to establish some form of climate credits whereby contributing assets to the common goal earns you credit which then can be “spent” or “traded” against environmental targets for development, with government departments and other parties obligated to generate a set amount of credit each year. A similar system is already being trialled in some locations for trading of Biodiversity Net Gain credits (BNG). There is also a need to create forums where collaborative initiatives are discussed and ultimately implemented. RPS is a key participant in these forums and is, together with partners, working to establish new forums to tackle issues of Nutrification of Rivers and Wetland areas as well as Water Scarcity.

 

Biodiversity - field of wild flowers

What needs to change?

  • Recognition must be given to projects for trialling new solutions without the threat of penalisation should an initiative not meet the aspirational targets. We must have more innovation.
  • We need to broaden the scope of benefits recognised to better include intangibles, such as heat sinks, and defuse water quality benefits which at the present are poorly represented.
  • We need a method for breaking out of an accountancy approach to mitigation where wider benefits are ignored because a solution might not have exactly the right level of benefit at the local level.

It’s crucial that we take a pragmatic stance in ensuring that schemes bring improvements to the whole, rather than focus on maintaining an environmental status quo.

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