Forest fire in Spain

"There is a lot somebody working in the built environment can do to make a difference"

Following the release of the latest IPCC climate report, Joe Giddings of Architects Climate Action Network explains how architects and designers can help prevent catastrophic climate change.


Doom-laden headlines and apocalyptic imagery abound as dramatic wildfires in southern Europe follow swiftly on the heels of the clearest and most alarming warning yet from the IPCC about the state of our climate.

The IPCC is the global authority on climate change and its latest report has been called a "code red" warning. It projects that we will pass 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming within the next decade or two and draws a clear link between human activity and the increasingly extreme weather events we’re experiencing.

All of this is enough to provoke understandable fear and anxiety over the future of our planet. But there is a lot somebody working in the built environment can do to make a difference.

New buildings often account for a tonne of embodied carbon emissions per square meter of construction and the message from the IPCC was clear: every tonne counts.

So here are some practical steps you can take as an architect, engineer or designer if you are worried about the climate following the IPCC publication.

1. Support the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) campaign for the regulation of embodied carbon emissions

As building designers, we always work to the standards set out in regulations and codes, but amazingly these emissions are still unregulated in the UK, despite accounting for a large proportion of every new building's carbon footprint.

New regulations could limit emissions arising from construction. France, Finland and the Netherlands have already introduced this so it's time the UK and others followed suit.

ACAN's campaign provides you with easy ways to take action, including a template letter and briefing note to send to your MP. Anybody is welcome to get more involved in the group and you can get in touch through the website.

2. Learn more about embodied carbon

LETI, another voluntary organisation, has written an extremely useful primer on the subject, which was published alongside its Climate Emergency Design Guide last year. You can find the primer on its website, which explains what embodied carbon is and how to reduce it.

If you are a visual learner, then Architects Declare has a fantastic recorded lecture series on its Vimeo page.

3. Specify sustainable products

It is difficult to find the right products, especially as most suppliers will claim their product to be "sustainable".

To check their credentials, you can request an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for the products you specify. These documents can be tricky to understand, but every EPD will have a measure of Global Warming Potential (GWP) and after comparing a few, they'll begin to make more sense.

To make things easier, The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products has made an interactive guide to help designers find sustainable options for various building elements.

4. Stop using concrete and steel. Use timber instead

Concrete and steel each account for around 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Structural timber products produce less carbon dioxide during their manufacture while trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere during their growth. This useful carbon capture and storage mechanism can help us mitigate climate change.

If you are sceptical, watch this brilliant talk professor Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber gave in April this year to launch the New European Bauhaus movement.

5. Become a certified Passivhaus designer

Probably the most rigorous course in building physics available. Those that have taken it will testify to its usefulness, regardless of whether or not your clients are aiming for Passivhaus accreditation.

Ask your practice to sign you up for one of the many courses available, but be prepared for a challenge!

6. Do less architecture

A controversial but simple point. The less we build, the less impact we have. We could all try working less to facilitate this, as studies have claimed that on a national scale a four day week could slash our emissions.

If you want to try having a wider impact during your working hours, there are plenty of opportunities. You could help shape public planning, through a Public Practice placement or by applying directly to the public sector.

You could look for roles at climate think tanks like E3G, which is increasingly turning attention towards buildings and cities.

You could take up teaching to support the next generation of designers. Many schools, including Central St Martins in London, are looking for tutors at the moment.

7. Make your pension work for the climate

Your pension is likely your largest pot of money, and all of it has been invested. These investments are often in things that contradict our values, from fossil fuels to meat and dairy.

The campaign group Make My Money Matter has put together a useful guide to help you change this.

8. Speak to those around you about ways that you've taken action

Talking about our anxieties helps to lessen them. Ask your friends and family to declare a climate emergency through Households Declare, you'll probably find that they care too.

If you find that this helps, you could find a local group or even start one in your area. ACAN has a growing number of international and regional groups, and Friends of the Earth has a network of local groups around the UK.

9. If you've done all of those things...

Well done, you've become an activist! Now relax a little bit, practice self-care, go for a bike ride or take up forest bathing. Make sure you don't burn out.

Joe Giddings is an architect and campaigner. He is campaigns coordinator at Architects Climate Action Network and project director for the Timber Accelerator Hub at The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products.