Changemakers for the future

Stephen Richardson, World Green Building Council

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series ‘Changemakers for the future’ we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. This time: Stephen Richardson, director of World Green Building Council.

‘There’s a real personal journey all of us have to go on’

Stephen Richardson of WorldGBC: Changemaker for the Future

I’ve always been inspired by this idea that the built environment connects people to the planet. In centuries past, agriculture did that, but since the industrial revolution, it’s buildings that connect us to the world. And in some ways, they also isolate us. So there’s an interesting dichotomy around how the built environment enables or prevents connection.

As a mechanical engineering student, I took a module on sustainability along with engineering, architecture and planning students. We were given a multidisciplinary challenge to develop a sustainability concept for a community. Collaborating with different backgrounds, different ways of seeing the world and different skillsets was exciting. The idea that we could together have an impact that benefits people and the planet was inspiring. I felt called to work in that space, enabling the built environment to contribute positively to how we engage with the world around us.

Not as simple as good guys and bad guys
I joined World Green Building Council to lead a project on green finance. We were looking at mortgages as a consumer product to help people make their buildings more sustainable. We worked on what would be a common European approach to take this green finance agenda forward. Some months later, there was an initiative from the European Commission seeking to define sustainable finance through the EU Taxonomy, which has similar objectives to what we were working on. It felt like a major success that some of what we’d proposed was taken into the EU recommendations.

In our work on driving the sustainability transition, there are very different perspectives on what to prioritise, what’s the best approach. Reconciling those is tough. It’s not always as simple as good guys and bad guys. It’s not just a case of trying to persuade people to do the right thing, but actually agreeing on what the right thing is. The people we talk to all want to do the right thing.

A life cycle approach
I’m really proud of our work on whole life carbon. Having worked as an engineer for a number of years, I went back to university and did a doctorate looking specifically at embodied carbon—carbon emissions associated with construction materials and processes. At WorldGBC, I could bring that knowledge into what was then a new programme. Having started there, I co-wrote the report “Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront”. It was ground-breaking in its vision: not just net zero carbon buildings in use but across their whole life cycle. We had a huge amount of positive feedback. We brought together voices that had been traditionally at odds with each other on that topic. We had endorsements representing the different material types across the value chain. The recommendations of that report are now implemented in our new #BuildingLife programme, which we are working on with the IKEA Foundation.

We’re strongly advocating for a whole life carbon approach to tackle the impact of the built environment. We look at emissions all the way up the value chain. These processes are not properly addressed in policy. The debate is difficult because emissions are difficult to measure or quantify. Also, we don’t want to slow the pace of renovation and improving the operational performance of buildings, but to do that, we need to use more materials. So how can we do it in a resource-efficient way? That’s a key issue that Europe as a region needs to address because we have so many poorly performing buildings. And yet, we must take a life-cycle approach to combat climate change.

Hopes for the future
If I had 10 minutes at COP 26, I’d bring two messages. First, buildings are at the very heart of our way of life—and they are one of the biggest sources of emissions. It is therefore absolutely critical that they be at the heart of efforts to tackle climate change. Second, tackling environmental crises has a direct correlation with the degree to which we are honest with ourselves—about how selfish we are, how broken our societies are. This idea of a just transition comes in here but there’s also a real personal journey all of us have to go on to achieve that change.

One of my biggest hopes is to look back without regret on the way I’ve lived and the legacy I leave my kids. Sustainability is about the long term. As a culture we now think in terms of seconds and minutes, not decades, let alone centuries. Regaining a sense of what it means to steward my own resources but also this planet is a way of honouring future generations.

This story was based on an interview with Stephen in February.

Stephen Richardson is director of the Europe Regional Network of World Green Building Council, and WorldGBC’s representative in the EU Sustainable Finance Platform, helping lead the development of the EU’s Green Taxonomy. Stephen is trained as a building services engineer and has worked in consultancy, local government and industrial research. Prior to joining WorldGBC, he completed an industry based doctorate (EngD) with Sainsbury’s and the University of Reading, focusing on embodied carbon and uncertainty in carbon based design and investment decisions for buildings.

The IKEA Foundation is partnering with the World Green Building Council in Europe to reduce emissions from building materials and during the construction and renovation of buildings.

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