Measure Progress Not Just Carbon

I have been thinking for a little while about the suitability or otherwise of the metrics we use to measure sustainability. Given peoples’ reactions at a few meetings recently, including the Edge Debate on the Politics of Carbon Measurement and a conversation with the UK Consul for Climate Change in Chongqing, I think that the time has come to look seriously at this issue.

Presently we attempt to measure the impacts of what we build, but we rarely measure the beneficial outcomes. Therefore we risk focussing attention on all that is bad and forgetting the good. Taken to extremes we could end up going backwards socially and economically in order to address the political imperative to deliver zero (or at least very low) carbon buildings. For example, many sub-saharan africans live in housing that would easily satisfy the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition. However if we were to adopt housing of this standard in the UK it would not be considered social progress. This rather exaggerated example highlights the need to find some form of metric that acknowledges the benefits of expending some carbon in certain circumstances in order to deliver social and economic progress.


I was involved a few years ago in a new headquarters building for CAFOD in Lambeth. The building followed closely on the heels of two other charity headquarters, Heelis, the National Trust HQ and the Woodland Trust HQ, and it received comparatively little attention. Perhaps this was because the CAFOD building was mechanically ventilated and cooled, whereas the others were natural ventilation exemplars. CAFOD had to be mechanically cooled as the tight urban site available required a very high occupancy density to accommodate the entire organisation, whereas the other buildings were on suburban or extra-urban sites with plenty of space for low occupancy density and natural ventilation. On the face of it this means that the CAFOD building was both more expensive and had higher carbon emissions. However these standard metrics of cost and carbon per square metre of space do not account for how the buildings can subsequently be used. I decided to look again at the buildings in terms of the occupancy. Occupancy rates are after all what office tenants will be most interested in. The results completely reversed the ranking of the three buildings as shown below.

CAFOD Comparison Graphs

Whilst the metric of carbon per desk or carbon per worker is certainly much more useful than carbon per square metre in linking impact to business targets, an even better metric would link carbon to a measure of business success, such as productive hours or added value. Thus at a stroke we would be able to distinguish between well designed environmental buildings that reduce carbon and promote productivity and those that pay scant attention to the design and bolt on EcoBling to achieve the carbon reduction.

Take hospitals as another example. Lots of good work has been done in the past on identifying the quality design factors that influence patient outcomes, by providing a better working environment or recovery environment. The NHS metric for energy efficiency is presently kWh/m3 per year. Using such measures as targets can create perverse incentives. A hospital could economise on carbon by reducing ventilation rates, but this would increase recovery times and cross infection rates. A better metric for the NHS would surely be kWh per bed, to account for spatial efficiency, but in order to measure the real success of hospitals we should link energy efficiency to patient outcomes. Perhaps a metric of kWh per patient discharged. The shorter the stay in hospital the better the outcome for both the patient and the NHS and the less energy expended in achieving the outcome.

Designing these new metrics will be complicated to get right. As soon as any measure is adopted as a target it creates an incentive and we must ensure that the perverse incentives in the system are as few and as little impact as possible. However any work in this area has got to be better than simply sticking with metrics that incentivise unrealistic outcomes for the businesses that have to occupy the buildings. If those of us who work in sustainability want to see positive outcomes from our efforts then we must find means to set the importance of carbon reduction within social and economic context that will deliver better business outcomes too.

China’s Conservation Culture

Having spent the last 2 weeks in Chongqing, China’s fastest growing industrial city, I realise on returning to the UK last week just how cosy and indolent our western economies have become. China is a powerhouse of making and doing, whilst we luxuriate in our undemanding jobs, manipulating imaginary paper wealth whilst ignorantly squandering natural resources in our disposable consumer society.

It is forecast that some 300 million Chinese will join the middle classes this decade. This is in addition to China having the fastest growing urban population in the world. The pressure on Chinese cities and their economy is phenomenal, but they are preparing for it. Our guidebook to Chongqing, published in 2011, lists only one metro line. We arrived to find that they already have four, with seven anticipated by 2015! Compare this with the 20 plus years it has taken to get London’s Crossrail underway.

But it is not just the phenomenal rate of development that I believe will set China apart, it is their culture of conservation and re-use.

Walk down a street in any Chinese city and you can find people who can repair, re-purpose or recycle just about everything you can imagine, from building materials to mobile phones. Demolition sites are immediately picked over for re-usable materials and you can find plenty of trade in recovered reinforcement and plywood shuttering from concrete. Cardboard packaging is collected from high street shops and carried off in huge bundles by little old ladies.

All the litter bins in public places, not just on the street, but out of town too, are all segregated for recyclable and non-recyclable, as you would find in Germany or other more enlightened Euro countries. On corners throughout the cities you will find the street cleaners sorting and packaging up the waste from the litter bins for re-use or recycling.

With a street food culture such as China’s you would expect to find large quantities of disposable food containers in the litter bins. However, you will also find people collecting the containers, clearly for re-use. One might question the hygiene implications of such a trade, but it is unquestionably avoiding substantial quantities of plastic going to landfill, reducing the costs of packaging for the food businesses and providing a subsistence income for the recyclers.

This culture of avoiding waste has clearly grown out of necessity. However, if this culture can be retained and nurtured, particularly in relation to Chinese manufacturing industry and the emerging middle class then there is no question that it will result in a fully developed economy that is far more resource efficient than we can boast in the West.

Whilst we in the West merely debate the principles of a circular economy, the Chinese live and breath it. The disposable consumer culture of the West is simply not for them, and long may it remain so.