How the built environment fuels climate change

Lumen Square is Kenya's 1st pre-certified LEED multi storey office building.

Said Mohamed Rhova’s rugged face outlines the life of a hardened pastoralist. Rhova, a resident of the volatile Tana River delta, comes from the predominantly pastoral Orma community. He lives in the same neighbourhood with the Pokomo who eke out a living cultivating around the delta.

Life here depends on the ebb and flow of the Tana River that mostly results in prolonged droughts on one hand and severe flooding on the other, consequences of climate change perpetuated by people Rhova will never know.

We met Rhova two weeks ago during a visit to the delta, the same week a high level meeting on climate change, the Fourth United Nations Environmental Assembly, was taking place in Nairobi.

“I hope they talk about how people in Nairobi are ruining our lives down here,” he told us. “I hear they are building next to rivers, causing droughts like this.”

While Rhova may not have all the details, the built environment has been cited as one of the key contributors to global climate change.

Biggest contributor

According to United Kingdom’s Design Council, “the construction and use of the built environment currently accounts for around half of carbon emissions”.

Though statistics on the extent to which the built environment contributes to climate change in Kenya are hard to come by, local experts say the sector is playing catch-up with the developed world in speeding up climate change.

“There is a direct connection between urban construction and climate change. There are carbon emissions through burning of fuels for vehicles and cooking,” says Mairura Omwenga, the chairperson of the Town and County Planners Association of Kenya.

In addition, Mairura says that with more people migrating to urban areas, cities are the greatest consumers of natural resources such as water, gobbling up such resources at a faster rate than can be replenished. However, it is in the construction where immediate effects of climate are being felt.

“Our buildings are occupying more and more footprint. We are paving the remaining surfaces, leaving no space to absorb excess runoff water. Such water ends up flooding the city. The perennial floods in low-lying areas such as Tana River are caused by excess runoff water that cannot be absorbed due to loss of ground cover,” says Omwenga.

Environmental design expert Kimeu Musau says while the increase in urban population is a major factor in climate change, poorly designed buildings, failure to use locally available and sustainable materials has not helped the cause of climate change.

Sustainable building

Musau says a sustainable building is one whose construction and lifetime of operation assures the healthiest possible environment and represents the most efficient and least disruptive use of land, water, energy and resources. “Non-environmentally friendly buildings produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute towards climate change. Such greenhouse gases allow shortwave radiation to strike the earth without escape, thus warming the climate further. This is how we talk of global warming that affects traditional weather patterns around the earth,” he says.

The remedy? “Build environmentally-conscious buildings, those that have no negative impact on the environment,” he says.

Interestingly, the week-long Nairobi meeting hardly addressed the effects of the built environment on climate change, the jargon too much to decode for people like Rhova who are currently riding the wave of climate change.

One resolution invited member states and other stakeholders to “promote the development and strengthening of sustainable financing mechanisms, such as green bonds, to promote inclusion of sustainability in business for the uptake and upscaling of sustainable business approaches, including but not limited to green business practices”.

The closest the resolutions came in acknowledging the role people like Rhova play in mitigating climate change is by recognising the role “indigenous people and local communities play in conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”.

Most affected

The resolution added that such indigenous people and local communities are “disproportionately impacted by biodiversity loss and land degradation, and should therefore be meaningfully engaged, taking into account their importance for climate change adaptation”. Even Kenya’s Climate Change Act is silent on the role the built environment has on climate change or solid mitigation measures.

As our urban areas expand and wipe out all traces of open ground, people like Rhova will only watch as rivers such as Tana continue to wreak havoc through floods or change course and leave former wetlands bare.

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