3 February 2011

A Sustainable Economy

'One million climate jobs' - that's the target set by the Campaign against Climate Change trade union group. A collective working together with academics and activists to convince the government to have the political will to embrace change to address the global economic and environmental crises together, not in isolation. Are they mutually beneficial, or is it inevitable that in the face of public spending cuts the environmental performance targets set at a host of international government gatherings will be sacrificed?

The trade union movement recently organised a lecture at the TUC building in Great Russell Street to discuss the ‘Spirit Level’, a book examining why more equal societies always do better. It was an opportunity to understand a broader social definition of sustainability and experience an enduring and democratic building not taken up by many architects, given the make up of the audience. The premise of the research, which is published on the equalitytrust.org.uk web site, is that continued growth does not bring benefits to rich countries. A series of independently gathered statistics covering subjects such as broad as violence, trust, obesity and global warming indicate that countries with greater equality, rather than relative wealth, perform better in terms of standard of living. Japan and Sweden far outperform the less equal societies of the UK and USA when the simple statistic of percentage of recycled waste is examined. In Japan equality is derived through parity of wage, whilst Sweden achieves similar results through taxation.

Returning to the theme of 'One million climate jobs', could greater equality benefit the environment we inhabit, or will the current financial crisis overshadow the need for change that the built environment requires, but is not yet addressed with conviction by the architectural profession. The Campaign against Climate Change highlight that whilst our national debt is currently at 75% of GDP, this is comparable to Japan's where public works programmes have historically benefited society and the environment. During our own industrial revolution the figure was consistently above current levels and hit 150% of GDP in the post war building boom period – a time when Harold Macmillan was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Stern Review indicated that a 2% expenditure of GDP would be required to stabilise the effects of global warming, an equivalent sum recently made immediately available to stabilise the banking sector.

The Campaign against Climate Change suggests that 40% of 22 million tonnes of CO2 emissions can be cut from non-domestic buildings within the next 5 years by undertaking a programme of retrofitting to standards beyond our current regulations and then enforcing them. An estimated 200,000 would be employed in this task alone. Alternatively new build would accelerate the process and allow a new responsive architecture to emerge. It clearly needs collective action. Are the TUC more radical than the RIBA? As Will Self recently said of the politicians - what's the plan guys??