What is the housing profession doing for the Sustainable Development Goals?
There is a growing public concern about climate change but awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is limited, writes CIH London region board member, Alan Winter.
Research by the London Regional Centre for Expertise (RCE) in education for sustainability has shown that action on climate change is not a priority for the Housing sector: concerns over funding, supply and the impact of Brexit has led to professional engagement being limited. The CIH London board is organising a session at the CIH Annual Conference in Manchester in June to encourage housing professionals to think about how we can change professional attitudes towards sustainability. This will be linked to an online survey aimed at finding out how housing professionals engage with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The recent upsurge of media interest in climate change - as witnessed by the Extinction Rebellion protests and Greta Thunberg’s School Strike movement across Europe - is to be welcomed but it really only highlights the lack of public debate on climate change and sustainability.
In 2015 the UN Sustainable Development Summit established 17 Sustainable Development Goals as the key elements of a framework designed to provide the way forward for action on climate change. The SDG’s are a recognition of the multi-layered nature of sustainability and that we need to develop and implement strategies aimed at improving health and education, reducing inequality whilst achieving economic growth and development that will also tackle climate change.
The UK has in many ways been at the forefront of the push to reduce carbon emissions. The Climate Change Act 2008 and the Code for Sustainable Homes 2006 introduced important and significant targets; for example, the requirement for all new housing to be zero carbon by 2016. The Stern Report, 2006, identified ways in which the UK economy could be transformed into a more sustainable model. One of its key messages was that, whilst tackling climate change was an urgent issue, it was not too late to take effective action. Thirteen years on, what have we been doing?
Some would argue that we have made little progress since then. Although there are examples of good practice across the economy (including housing), the story since 2008 has largely been one (at best) of slow progress and (at worst) stagnation. It can be argued that events have overtaken us; the 2008 crash, austerity and Brexit have overshadowed climate change as a matter of public, political and professional concern. It is easy here in the UK to view climate change as something that can wait. Job insecurity, homelessness, and poverty are immediate problems that focus people’s concerns on the difficult here and now, at the expense of a future problem.
David Cameron famously claimed in 2010 that his government would be the “greenest government ever” but then embarked on dismantling most of the green initiatives that had been put in place by the previous Labour government. But the importance of sustainability and climate change to the housing profession is clear. Residential buildings contribute about a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions annually and the social housing sector owns 17 per cent of homes in the UK, many of which are old and of low quality in terms of energy efficiency.
Housing associations build around 22,000 homes every year and their activities (together with private sector housing developers) are significant contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions. The demanding targets on the reduction of UK carbon emissions by 2050 set by the Climate Change Act 2008 will require a 3 per cent annual reduction in domestic emissions. Given that emissions from buildings have increased by 4 per cent whilst emissions in other parts of the economy have reduced, it is clear that more needs to be done within the housing sector; some argue that meeting the 2050 target will be impossible without more action from the sector.
The National Energy Efficiency Action Plan, the 2010 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the Government’s Fuel Poverty Strategy, which sets out long term targets for fuel poor homes to be EPC band C or above by 2030, are all examples of initiatives that will require the social housing sector (and housing professionals) to have a much higher level of knowledge and understanding of sustainability for the future.
Yet the housing profession is largely unaware of and disengaged with the sustainability agenda. With some exceptions, the housing profession doesn’t talk about climate change and sustainability. There are three strands to sustainability: social, economic and environmental, but when housing professionals talk about sustainability they tend to view it through the lens of the social and economic rather than the environmental.
How do we change this situation? How can we shift the focus of social housing’s priorities towards tackling climate change and achieving a more sustainable future? The government’s record since 2010 suggests that we can’t expect much change in regulation or government targets that would push our profession and sector towards sustainability. We will need to make that change happen ourselves.
Please join us at the Manchester conference: the London Region session will take place at 11.00 on Tuesday 25 June in the CIH Members’ Lounge. Admission is free to CIH members.
- Dr Alan Winter is a Visiting Fellow at London South Bank University, researching into Housing and Sustainability. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and twitter: @ecohouser.