Journal article

The contribution of buildings to climate change has become widely acknowledged. On 3 December 2015, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) held the first ‘buildings day’ at COP 21 (the UN Climate Change Conference) devoted to the decarbonization of the building stock. There are several forms of negative contributions that buildings make to climate change, but high on the list are embodied and operational energy demands, which largely depend on fossil fuels and result in greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the urgency of the risks associated with climate change, the mandate to contain global warming to 1.5–2.0°C and the urgency to reduce energy demand and decarbonize radically, a key challenge is what actions can be taken across a whole suite of areas relating to the building stock. Over the past 18 years, there have been several Building Research & Information special issues exploring this theme in terms of technical, social, environmental and economic aspects as well as numerous papers in regular issues.

This special issue explores the governance options and regimes for addressing climate change in the building stock. Specifically, it investigates how building regulatory systems and related polices are addressing the current and future effects of climate change. It considers alternative governance approaches. Key questions are whether the focus and scope of building regulations are adequate, what can be done to improve them, how to accelerate change, what other regimes and policies are needed, whether more flexibility in regulation is needed and whether today’s regulations sufficiently anticipate tomorrow’s problems and needs. In posing these questions, one must ask what is a clear, efficient, transparent policy (and process) for ensuring radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from both individual buildings and the building stock as a whole and when/how the regulations are applied over the various stages of a building’s life.

Although notable exceptions exist, the current approach to regulatory codes in the built environment largely originates from the past. It continues to be influenced by past events where adverse conditions often resulted in loss of human life and much financial damage. The result of this approach is not only a long time lag with the current requirements of the built environment but also a failure to anticipate and plan for the current challenges of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It is evident that building regulations have been slow to engage with mitigating climate change and their design may not be suited to the task.

Many traditional regulatory systems tend to be mandatory and prescriptive. One way to address these challenges is for the governance of buildings to embrace more integrative solutions that may include voluntary alternative approaches. These voluntary approaches are initially established to provide some incentives or recognition for buildings that meet higher requirements. Some of these approaches are market based, others are led by altruistic concerns.

The safety and health of building users are still the main influence on the present regulatory system for the built environment, although regulation has considerably tightened over the past 30–40 years on some issues involving energy efficiency. When considered against the background of the Brundtland Report: Our Common Future(World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future (The Brundtland Report). Oxford: Oxford University Press for the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. [Google Scholar]), the lack of progress in the governance of the building stock is notable. For example, current building regulations take little account of dwindling resource availability and the impact of future climate change on buildings. These challenges necessitate a different regulatory approach in terms of the scope of concerns, and the points of intervention over the life cycle of a building.

However, some Western governments want to deregulate the regulation of buildings by reducing the role of the state and assigning more responsibility to market forces. A key challenge for building regulations is how to expand the focus from issues of inhabitant health and safety to include a wider remit of environmental health and safety. This central question challenges most traditional regulatory roles and responsibilities. It also necessitates alternatives for the governance of these issues.

It is worth remembering that governance consists of a broad landscape entailing many actors. It is not limited to only governmental regulation (and the mix of many different policies that comprise regulation) and is also composed of many other influences: standards, professional obligations, private contracts, insurance and finance requirements, judicial decisions, market conditions, etc. These (and the engagement of the inhabitants) all have a role to play in determining the actual outcomes for buildings.

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