Overall, I think it’s fair to say that we are making progress on sustainability issues. Environmental action seems to have reached something like a critical mass. It is remarkable that the world’s most famous teenager is not a popstar or athlete, as has been the case in previous generations, but a climate activist – Greta Thunberg. Nonetheless, the public discussion remains maddeningly blighted by misinformation, misgiving and misunderstanding. Perhaps one example of this is the lingering confusion around decarbonisation timeframes. 2050 is often presented as a target date, the desirable end point of our journey towards total energy transition. This is wrong. 2050 is a deadline, and a strict one at that. We will get no extensions if we fail to deliver on schedule.
Of course, the built environment will be key to our prospects. By now, you will be very familiar with the sector’s outsized contribution to global emissions counts. But the nature of the challenge varies across developed and developing world. Most estimations suggest that India will become the world’s most populous nation somewhere around the mid-point of this decade. Accordingly, the country is building rapidly so as to meet demand: roughly 75% of the buildings required by 2030 to accommodate the booming population do not yet exist. Servicing this need will undoubtedly be a huge undertaking, but it presents an equally huge opportunity. If managed wisely, with newfound industry knowledge on sustainability guiding the process, India can avoid the kind of carbon lock-in that poses such difficulty in legacy building stock elsewhere.
Indeed, it is this legacy stock that makes the decarbonisation puzzle so devilishly complex. In the developed world, where population numbers are relatively stable and the need to build is consequently less acute, today’s houses and offices will be tomorrow’s houses and offices. So says the Institute of Engineering and Technology, which projects that 80% of buildings currently in-use will still be in-use by 2050’s decarbonisation deadline day. By and large, these buildings – cherished homes and valued workplaces – pre-date modern green building standards. Quite simply, we cannot live without them. Equally, we cannot live with them in their current energy-profligate form.