Will a zero-carbon lifestyle make us happy

18 July 2019
Over recent months the extinction rebellion protests have rightly called for immediate action on climate change. However completely eradicating modern life as we know could have serious consequences for society.

Adam Selvey. Ramboll. Image courtesy of Paulina Sobczak Photography

Adam Selvey

UK Building Services Design Excellence Leader
T: +44 7816 132 764

With the recent climate change protests and subsequent government commitments in tackling climate change, as a building services engineer, with an MSc in Sustainable Energy Systems and having worked on a trail blazing zero-carbon project over 10 years ago, you would think I’d be a zero-carbon convert that is jumping for joy, but I’m not.

Over recent months numerous “Extinction Rebellion” protests, have rightly called for an immediate action on climate change. It can be argued that this action had the consequence of causing both the UK national and local governments to declare “a climate emergency”. More recently the UK government promised to “commit to a 2050 zero-carbon target”. Following suit both Manchester and my home city of Birmingham have promised to go zero-carbon by 2038 and 2030 respectively. However, with all these grand announcements, I’m starting to come to the realisation that whilst striving for zero-carbon in its current form has noble intentions, it presently has the potential to make our society and individuals further excluded and unhappy.

Yes, we all need to change aspects of our lives and make more informed choices to reduce our impact on the planet and try to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change. However, the current noise coming out from climate change campaigners would have you believe we need to completely eradicate modern life as we know it and roll back the way in which we live. Some of the suggestions made recently have been to:

  • Eat little or no meat
  • Buy no more than 3 items of new clothing a year
  • Travel less and stop flying
  • Drive electric vehicles
  • Use only renewable source
  • Tax more to deliver the new future

Whilst it is understandable that we do need to use less energy, move to renewable energy sources, have more sustainable food sources, move away from a consumerist society, have more sustainable ways to travel and fund this transition, we cannot just forget the benefits that our modern way of life have brought to society. Take the invention of flight for example, this has arguably been the single most important technological advancement in connecting us as society. By enabling the world population to visit, trade, eat, be friends, we can appreciate our connection to a bigger world than that of the era we grew up in. Travel connects people from other nations, helping us understand that we have more in common than that which divides us, this supports reduction in conflicts and wars.

Perceived positive change could have a detrimental impact on people

Over the past couple of years, I have started to reflect on this more and more. These ideas came to a head when whilst “Extinction Rebellion” were protesting at home, I was on holiday in Venice. It was here when I witnessed a group of happy, smiling Japanese tourist on a gondola, that were singing beautifully, I started to realise human happiness plays an essential role in a successful harmonious ‘sustainable society’. The solution needs to not be at the expense of connecting people, for example, high speed rail helping to displace domestic aviation travel. At this moment, I started to think about where else that the good intentions of a zero-carbon future can start to drive unhappiness and create a divided society in the built environment. I realised that there are so many areas of our lives that zero-carbon could potentially make people unhappy or excluded from society. For instance, one of my recent passions and beliefs is that we need to implement electric vehicles and low emission zones to improve air quality and public health.

However, the implementation of this emerging technology and the subsequent low emission zones may have the effect of pricing the those who are less well-off out of our cities. If the proposed suggestions in UK cities are brought to the fore in their current guise, people who own second-hand cars that do not meet the new emission criteria could have to pay circa £15 to £20 a time to drive into our cities. This cost coupled with parking charges could result in a £30 to £40 bill to drive into the city. So, a policy with good intentions results in social exclusion and a divided society. 

Obviously, it is essential that we have good public transport links to reduce the reliance on the car, but as we know public transport is not always possible when undertaking complex journeys. In many UK cities, our current public transport infrastructure means we cannot completely escape our reliance on the car because they have not been designed around transportation hubs to connect us together. Therefore, without whole sale re-planning, we need to be realistic about what is achievable in the short term. There are innovative realistic solutions that could help to reduce the impact of cost on communities following an introduction of low emission zones, such as cheap short term EV car sharing/rental and charging facilities, which are located within community hubs and powered by renewable electricity. 

In the built environment, the drive to create quick, easy and code compliant answers to generate lower carbon solutions is evident in the residential sector. Over time government policy such as Building Regulations Approved Document Part L1, has rightly tightened standards, which has resulted in us building ever air tight boxes, with more improved fabric performance. In mass production housing, this good intention regulation has resulted in smaller and smaller windows, which let in less natural light and air tight dwellings that can potentially over heat in the summer. In high rise residential, we often install either no opening windows or on the grounds of health and safety, ones that only open 150mm.  This problem was identified as far back in 2011 when Channel 4 “The Secret Life of Buildings – Home”, looked at how window design size and our ability to get views and natural light effected our physical and mental health. It provided scientific evidence to conclude that the current mass-produced housing stock could result in a lack of natural light, that would transform the presenter to be borderline diabetic. 

With 90% of our daily lives spent indoors, we are doing this in our most important places as we want an answer quickly and cheaply to solve regulations, sustainability and energy efficiency targets, but what are we doing to our mental/physical health and overall happiness? We need to spend more effort and resource in design and construction to get our homes right, instead of continuing the race to the bottom and we need to be mindful that in our bid to create zero-carbon buildings, most importantly, they need to be sustainable. For us, sustainability is also about respecting the intergenerational contract that is embedded in the Bruntland-definition – we must carefully consider the quality of the built environment that we pass on to future generations.

How do we ensure happiness in the workplace?

In the workplace we are further on with this journey as we have standards such as “The WELL Buildings Standards”, only this does not go far enough. In some instance we squeeze people in to small desks with little or no individuality. We give people the minimum fresh air to feel okay, whilst creating deep plan buildings with little view to the windows. The focus for “WELL” is that it can boost employee’s performance. But what makes us happy? The 2019 World Happiness Report shows the Nordics takes the top spots again, and it’s no surprise given the Danish Government’s focus on people. For example, their architectural policy is titled “Putting People First” and regulation in Denmark usually mean that you can only have desks two or maybe three deep at the window.

We need to focus on how a well-designed built environment can improve the happiness of individuals lives and society, whilst still reducing carbon impact. As architects, designers and engineers we need to incorporate emotion of the users into our designs. We need to engage with psychologists, social scientists and data analysts to quantify the attributes that will contribute to happiness. Happiness could become a new commodity in the future.

So, I believe in striving for zero-carbon, but not at the expense of the breakdown of our communities and our happiness. I believe in sustainability and liveability to make buildings a good place to live, learn and work.  Liveability describes the conditions required to enable people to flourish – and covers both physical as well as mental health. All these conditions must be included when a site is being developed to make it a success. It is important to create buildings that are both environmentally friendly and enables end users to thrive.

The industry needs to spend more efforts in designing better environments and make decisions that ensure inclusivity and not the potentially draconian reversal of humanity. I suppose it is down to all of us to ensure this is not the case. 

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