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How can the built environment ensure the environmental transition leaves no-one behind?

We know that we need to take urgent climate action, but this can’t be at the detriment of vulnerable people and communities – many of whom will have contributed the least to environmental degradation and yet are suffering the biggest consequences.

In the third of our thought leadership series this World Green Building Week, we’re focusing on the just transition, and exploring how the built environment has a central role to play in achieving climate justice without sacrificing social justice.

What is the just transition?

As part of the transition to a sustainable, decarbonised future, there will inevitably be ‘winners and losers’ as we migrate away from existing economic models and practices of business. One of the greatest socio-economic risks of a decarbonised future is for people around the world whose livelihoods depend on polluting industries which, we know, must be scaled down. It’s therefore vital to ensure that no-one is left behind.

A ‘just transition’ involves the transformation to a more sustainable economy in a manner that is fair and protective to all people.

Without a just transition, we risk alienating sectors of society, creating vulnerable populations as well as increasing the risk of conflict and inequalities – ultimately reducing the speed of the transition to a low-carbon and sustainable future. As set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, action for people and planet must go hand in hand.

How does this relate to the built environment?

Estimates suggest that 80 million jobs could be at risk by the end of the decade due to climate change (ILO).

Additionally, our built environments are intrinsically part of the just transition as any positive or negative social impacts will be felt across our communities and cities, and impact our relationship with the built environment around us.

Advancing a just transition in the built environment means a committed solidarity to protect human rights and access to opportunities across the whole value chain – from financial flows to construction, supply chains and beyond.

Additionally, to support a systemic shift away from the combustion of fossil fuels, decarbonisation of the energy grid and massive reduction in the exploitation of natural resources and systems, we urgently need policy-level intervention to drive change for all people and, crucially, set the necessary conditions to protect ‘at risk’ groups during the transition.

The opportunities for people are there. It’s forecast that nature-based solutions can generate 20 million new jobs (UNEP), but we need to ensure that everyone has access to develop the skills and training necessary to benefit from these roles.

What role can the built environment play to support a fair and equitable transition?

WorldGBC partner, Expo City Dubai, states: ‘The built environment, specifically cities, are a complex “system of systems” that must be thought of holistically to create a thriving community that is good for people and planet.

‘It is not uncommon for city stakeholders to focus on the challenges in which they can have a direct impact. This is an easier path in general, but unfortunately, this “siloed approach” can have a negative impact on the communities with the least power and influence. A values-driven approach in which stakeholders collaborate with one another and the community can result in very positive outcomes at a lower financial and environmental cost.

‘We aligned our strategy to the UN SDGs from early in the planning of the city. We have prioritised social value creation, gender equality, and inclusivity in that way that we plan, build and operate the city.’

Global professional services company and WorldGBC partner GHD has researched opportunities to leverage social infrastructure and the built environment to underpin a more equitable, accessible and just future for all types of communities. Their research has found that: ‘A ‘big build’ of renewable energy infrastructure is needed to support the energy transition. Planning for new infrastructure requires consideration of the unique ways a community’s social, cultural, economic and environmental aspirations intersect – and it is often at the nexus point of these various elements that the true vulnerability of communities is seen.

‘For example, project proponents are increasingly being asked by regulators and the communities themselves to consider the indirect effects of their projects on vulnerable populations, which may be excluded from the economic and social benefits of the development of new mines, energy projects or large-scale infrastructure.’

Sustainable building solutions company and WorldGBC partner, Holcim, are pioneering innovative design with Africa’s largest 3D-printed affordable housing project to date through its joint venture project 14Trees. In addition to enabling homeownership for low-income households with material use reduction, these projects support a just transition by creating qualified jobs for their community. By training the local workforce to use 3D printers and prepare and operate the sites, these projects empower communities with new skills and techniques, which they can use to continue to build a more sustainable future for themselves and others. Most recently, 14Trees launched IROKO, the first construction 3D printer manufactured in Africa, making the technology 30% cheaper and, therefore, more accessible to local communities.

Construction company and WorldGBC partner, Multiplex, recognise the growing convergence of environmental and social systems relating to decarbonisation, digitalisation, green skill opportunities, and technological breakthroughs.

For example, to maximise social outcomes their ‘The Broadway project’ in London, UK, embedded social value, job creation, human rights, diversity and inclusion, and health and wellbeing throughout the project. This included investing in the communities surrounding the project, upskilling the workforce, training the next generation, supporting schools, colleges and universities by sharing expertise, offering work experience placements, supporting social procurement and volunteering their time. As a result of which, they calculate the Broadway generated over £17 million in social value.

Bringing everyone on the journey to a more sustainable future

With 75% of the infrastructure needed by 2050 still needing to be built, the World Green Building Council is calling on every stakeholder in the built environment value chain to consider their role in ensuring that no-one is left behind in the journey to a more sustainable future.

From engaging communities, supporting human rights including indigenous and migrant rights, creating policy-level interventions, or investing in workforce development programs that provide training and employment opportunities in green sectors, we all have a responsibility to recognise those left vulnerable by the transition to a more sustainable economy and ensure they are included.

You can check out this handy one-page guide for Building a Just Transition to Net Zero from UKGBC. Or alternatively, see our Health and Wellbeing Framework, for principles for a healthy and equitable built environment, to help the industry consider a holistic approach to health at all stages of the supply chain.

About World Green Building Week

This year’s World Green Building Week runs from 11–15 September 2023 and calls on the global building and construction sector to accelerate the transition to secure an energy efficient, regenerative and just future for all. Find out more.