Cracking discussion on Monday at a seminar organised by the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment UCL – ‘Practising Ethics in Built Environment Research’.

Our topic was ‘Engaging with the Fossil Fuel Companies: Risks and Opportunities’. This was obviously right up my street, given the ongoing debate about whether or not it’s ethically acceptable for environmental organisations to work with big fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP. Or indeed, whether it’s ethically acceptable for concerned individuals to go on working for such companies!

One of the delegates at the seminar suggested (in the coffee break) that I was ‘a bit like a dog with a bone’ on this one, harassing bona fide companies with accusations of moral turpitude, ‘double-dealing’ and so on – none of which is quite true, by the way, but he made his point!

As it happens, I directed most of my comments not so much to the oil and gas companies as to professionals within the built environment. Prospects for an ultra-low-carbon economy are meaningless without an ultra-low-carbon built environment, not just regarding all new build from herein on, but in terms of retrofitting existing buildings. As we often hear, 80% of the buildings we’ll be using in rich world countries in 2050 are already built.

Today’s reality, on the ground, is that the vast majority of new buildings are monstrously ‘unfit for purpose’ – as in failing to minimise emissions of greenhouse gases, let alone maximise utility, wellbeing and comfort. And the scale and pace of retrofit programmes around the world remains wholly inadequate – with a few rare exceptions such as Germany, where nearly a third of existing non-domestic buildings have already been retrofitted, primarily to help reduce overall energy consumption.

So whose responsibility is it here in the UK to help get that sorted out? The Government’s, obviously, but we know how forlorn a prospect that is – as I made very clear in my ‘By No Stretch of the Imagination’ Report. Beyond that: Developers? Clients? Investors? Landlords? Or is it the fault of architects and designers, engineers, and contractors, who actually do the work?

All of the above, in some respects, which gives rise to the ‘vicious circle of blame’, where responsibility lies everywhere else in the value chain other than in your own hands.

So let’s take a hypothetical case for a leading firm of architects or consulting engineers here in the UK. Let’s start by asking them to be as well-informed about accelerating climate change as we expect today’s oil and gas companies to be. Ignorance, after all, is no excuse, wherever you work.

So what happens when they come to the same conclusions about the science of climate change that I recently suggested were the only conclusions that employees in an oil and gas company could come to:
• That climate change is indeed predominantly manmade.
• Is already impacting the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
• Is likely to get much worse, much faster.
• Is giving rise to phenomena in the Antarctic and the Arctic that are already described by some scientists as potentially irreversible.

What then are the ethical responsibilities of the partners in that firm when it comes to tendering for work that they absolutely know will produce buildings that are monstrously unfit for purpose from a low-carbon point of view? Do they just plead another bad, sad case of CDS (Client Dependency Syndrome), win the bid and then build the monstrosity? Or do they decline to tender on the grounds that they would be in breach of whatever code of ethical conduct they might have?

I suspect that everyone in the UCL audience knew the answer to that question as well as you do: the number of professional firms and organisations involved in the built environment that turn down work on account of its unacceptable carbon intensity is tiny.

So what makes the vast majority of individual professionals in the built environment any more or less ethically compromised than the employees of companies like Shell and BP?

And how should today’s professors in the Bartlett’s Faculty of the Built Environment be preparing their students for this kind of ethical dilemma – a dilemma that may be seen by some to be marginal today, but can only grow in significance in the future? By ignoring it? By maintaining what is sometimes called ‘strict neutrality’? Or by doing their homework on the state of the climate science today (which hardly any of them ever do), and then helping their students to address those unignorable physical and ethical challenges in an applied and purposeful way?

And I think you can guess my own answer to that particular question!

P.S. Back to that ‘dog with a bone’ story for a moment. Just before he stood down as Editor of the Guardian, I did an interview with Alan Rusbridger for one of his occasional podcasts around the Guardian’s ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign – this one focussing in on the moral dilemmas in the oil and gas sector. For those who are interested in further bits of gristle here: Soundcloud