Henderson Colloquium 2020: Tackling the Climate Emergency

Like so many other meetings this year, the Henderson Colloquium was this year held online instead of in the comfortable and convivial surroundings of Christ’s College Cambridge. Nevertheless, in spite of exchanging the Dining Hall for the kitchen, the Fellows’ Garden for a computer screen and warm July for a cold November, the delegates enjoyed two days of stimulating, challenging and vitally important presentations and debate on the most urgent topic of our time – achieving a net zero carbon construction industry.

Entitled “Tackling the climate emergency: redefining the present to ensure the future”, the Colloquium addressed the hard reality of the radical changes that are urgently needed if we are to have a chance of achieving a net zero economy by 2050, in line with the UK Government’s commitment. In fact, it quickly became very clear that the urgency is much more extreme than that, and we should be aiming at zero carbon in the construction industry by 2030 if we are to have any hope of levelling off the increase in global temperatures and other damaging trends, let alone reversing them.

As we all know, construction has been a major part of the problem – nearly 50% of CO2 emissions relate to the construction and use of buildings and this becomes nearer 80% when you include transport and power infrastructure. It is now abundantly clear that whilst harnessing nature to accelerate growth and benefit mankind has brought unparalleled prosperity to some it has simultaneously caused unparalleled harm to the entire planet. Engineers must take the lead in efforts to delay and hopefully reverse this catastrophe, and this requires us to articulate the truth, however unpalatable. We must chart the pathways for change towards a healthier planet whilst being honest about the massive risks of any failure to change fast enough. Success is by no means assured and we might only delay the inevitable extinction that we can already see on the horizon.

So, it was with that gloomy but energising prospect that the Henderson participants gathered in front of their screens on 8th and 9th September. The good thing about being online was that we were not restricted by the space limitations of meeting in person, but only by how many presentations we could fit into the day. The Colloquium was chaired by Mike Cook, who heads up the Institution of Structural Engineers’ task group on the response to the climate emergency, and the participants included senior leading figures from across a wide spectrum, not just drawn from within the construction industry. The response to the challenge was addressed under four headings corresponding to key challenge areas and the background of the invited delegates:

  • Industry response – designers, specifiers, constructors
  • Institution response – professional bodies, investors, clients, insurers
  • Government response – policy, regulation, procurement
  • Education response – universities, academics, research

Among the issues to emerge from the discussions was the realisation that this is something that every one of us needs to urgently act upon. This is not something that can be left to leaders, policy makers, teachers, managers and others – we must each take responsibility by reducing the embodied carbon and greenhouse gas emissions in our own designs and processes, as well as in our private lives. We can make the difference if we act now. Our business models need to change, to somehow prioritise planetary values and not just monetary ones. We need to find the incentives that force people to change and to build responsibly. It must become unacceptable to design and build anything that does not aim for a zero-carbon outcome. These things must become a priority.

With the COP26 meeting scheduled for November next year in Glasgow, participants recognised the opportunity to influence global policy makers to effect real change, and the timing is right to raise the issues addressed at the Colloquium to a higher level. We also need to use the international platforms of IABSE, IStructE and many others to spread the word globally as far as possible because one thing is very clear – we cannot achieve zero carbon unless everyone pulls together everywhere.

The intention is to publish a summary of the Colloquium discussions and to continue to influence decision makers at the highest level through the networks represented by this year’s Henderson participants, so watch out for more in due course. Our thanks go to Mike Cook and all the participants for a stimulating few days.

Ian Firth, Chairman IABSE British Group