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Changemaking for carbon reduction

In this article we explore what making a change to reduce carbon in the built environment looks like
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In the next section, we will be taking a look and some of the ways different players have been able to achieve positive change to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment system. Those players are business, government and society. Before we dive into this though, let’s take a look at what it means to make change, and how this relates to the low carbon imperative in the built environment.

A wave of change for a low carbon built environment

As we have seen throughout this course, the built environment is not a single entity. Rather, it is a complex system that covers buildings, infrastructure, transportation, and energy systems, (and of course people!) all of which are interconnected and impact each other. Not only that, but the built environment is also deeply connected to both ecological and social systems as well. How do we start to understand these systems?

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics provides a great framework for thinking about the big picture, and where we should decide to focus our attention for change. In Kate’s vision (see image below), the ‘doughnut’ represents a world system we should be aiming for as humans. The inner ring represents social foundations, such as having enough to eat, clean water to drink, healthcare provisions and comfort to live. The outer ring represents ecological limits, such as biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and pollution. What the diagram demonstrates is that if you push too much on one side, the other side falters, and the system as a whole starts to not work. By visualising this, we see how and where we need to make a change to ensure the entire system is sustainable. This idea of the doughnut could be applied at many scales, from whole countries (check out this interactive tool exploring this by the University of Leeds), to cities, organisations, or even a home.

Kate Raworth's Doughnut Diagram. A circular diagram divided into two concentric rings. The outer ring represents the ecological ceiling that should not be exceeded, and includes several environmental factors such as climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, and biodiversity loss. The inner ring represents the social foundation that should not be neglected, and includes factors such as access to food, water, energy, healthcare, education, gender equality, and political voice. The space between the two rings represents the safe and just space for humanity, where the needs of all people are met within the ecological limits of the planet Image source: Doughnut Economics

Thinking about this, we can explore where we can focus our energy to enact the most (or least) effective change, and how interconnected the issues and challenges are. For example, improving building insulation and energy efficiency could reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, while also improving indoor air quality and occupant comfort, leading to improvements in wellbeing and reducing fuel poverty, while also mitigating climate change. In contrast, if you have a solar panel installed on your roof, but then dig further and find that the minerals used within those panels are being unsustainably mined in another part of the world, then those panels are no longer such a sustainable option after all. The ‘places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything’ are known as Leverage Points. Leverage points can be a helpful thing to think about how or where to make a positive change in the system.

This is a hopeful thought. When thinking about making a change for the climate crisis, the scale of the issue can indeed feel extremely overwhelming. By zooming out to see the entire picture, and then zooming back down to see the points of most effective change, we see which areas will enable us to make the most truly sustainable choices. As a result, we end up better equipped to find solutions to problems. We can identify opportunities to reduce carbon emissions and improve sustainability across multiple sectors simultaneously.

There is a risk of becoming overwhelmed. Consider this question with regards to personal change, and the change you can achieve in your organisation: what is mine to do? In answering this question, we can get specific about what’s within our power and within our abilities to change.

Change does happen

The suffrage movement changed politics forever. When government legislated against cigarette smoking, it stopped in public places and smoking generally reduced dramatically.

An example of changemaking in practice is the work of Ray Anderson. Ray Anderson is the founder of a commercial carpet company called Interface. After reading ‘The Ecology of Commerce’, he realised that business could either lead to ecological destruction or restorative change. He decided to work towards the latter. The project was called ‘Mission Zero’, with an ambitious goal to be zero waste, zero impact and zero environmental footprint by 2020. Now, they have achieved a 97% reduction of market-based GHG emissions at carpet manufacturing sites since 1996. By using recycled content and bio-based materials in an innovative way, they have created carpet tiles that store carbon, preventing its release into the atmosphere.

But change isn’t easy. It takes courage and leadership to make a change. It takes clarity of vision and determination to see that vision through. And it takes teamwork and collaboration. No large-scale change has ever been made by one person, working alone. Yet, do not underestimate the power you do have when working as a team. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead is credited with saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

Many people have studied change in organisations, and there’s a lot of research out there (for example, John Cotter in his work on leading change). Filtering that research down, the Harvard Business Review recommends these five steps in learning change:

  • Assess prevailing culture
  • Condition the culture
  • Commit time and energy
  • Construct an able implementation team
  • Call on your courage

Thinking of a change you want to see happen in your organisation, can you see how these steps might help you implement it?

Next up…

The key takeaway here is that change can – and must be – be achieved in all parts of the built environment system. Often, a small change in one part of the system, can have positive ripple effects to other areas of the system.

What changes do you think you can make to the built environment system? What are the small actions you could take that could have a further reaching impact?

In the next section, we will take a look how change for a lower carbon-built environment is being created at three different scales: business, government and society. All three need be engaged in change for us to effectively tackle the climate crisis.

Let’s jump into it!

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An Introduction to Climate Change and Carbon Reduction in the Built Environment

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