Depoliticisation: the future of sustainability in construction

Simon Richards is sustainability director at Sir Robert McAlpine

The scale of change needed and timescales involved in a green transition supports the argument that a depoliticisation of sustainability is necessary in order to make our ambitions a reality.

Carbon continues to hog the limelight for sustainability – and while the focus on this key area is welcome, there does need to be some redress to look at the other elements that sit under the umbrella of sustainability.

To truly unlock construction’s sustainable future, we must move beyond individual achievements, working together to deliver a greener, cleaner built environment.

Removing politics from the equation

As a general election looms, it is more important than ever to remember that the green transition is a cause that exists outside of the political arena. Sustainability commitments hinged on the five-year parliamentary life cycle cannot hold enough weight or gain enough ground to be truly effective.

The reality of a five-year government is several years of discussion around what will be done and why, followed by one or two years of implementation. Plans then return to the drawing board as the election cycle restarts.

Political uncertainty does not inspire confidence in the country’s ability to deliver on the commitments, or for the private sector to invest in delivering the requirements.

Uncertainty breeds inaction, and policy ambiguity understandably makes business question whether existing sustainability legislation will remain relevant in the years ahead – stifling investment and progress to be made on a long-term basis.

Sustainability: It’s more than carbon

When we talk about sustainability, carbon management and reduction is often the first to be discussed. Sustainability means so much more than reducing carbon emissions, but we cannot deny that carbon is often the ‘first train out of the station’.

We must harness the path paved by carbon to improve the speed, effectiveness and efficiency of the other elements of sustainability. Using the legislative frameworks, working groups and delivery mechanisms we can, for example, improve biodiversity or legislating and implementing circular economy practices.

If we are going to do this though, it is critical that carbon management policies are crafted effectively from the outset of the transition, with tangible policies implemented to guide industry through the process. Only once these changes are made can the public and private sectors truly work hand in glove to achieve our sustainability goals.

A sustainability coalition?

For there to be real change in the way we approach our sustainability goals, we must depart from an overreliance on words and shift into action. And action needs a solid foundation of policy and legislation for it to work in the long-term – setting up a party-agnostic sustainability coalition, incorporating input from both the private and public sectors, could set longstanding goals that can be actioned beyond the five-year mark.

It is also key that deadlines are set in the short and medium-term, as well as in the long-term. Vague, long-term deadlines run the risk of companies putting off taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, scheduling any action far down the line.

While setting achievable goals no doubt requires meticulous planning and thought, policy statements must detail more than just what and why things are being done and focus on the how, homing in on the actual delivery of commitments rather than words on paper. A case in point is the UK’s net-zero commitment – it is clear that imminent action must be taken to ensure that we are on track to reach our net-zero goals as a country.

In the face of political instability, we must remain committed to achieving our climate aims and wider sustainability improvements; cementing commitment and action into legislation, and establishing clear timebound action plans to build a greener, cleaner and greater construction industry.

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