Historic England's Position on Climate Change and Sustainability

We are facing a global climate crisis and the UK has committed to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Historic England recognises the urgent need for positive action and is committed to achieving net zero.

Over the past several years we have been working closely with other organisations, on a national and international scale, to understand and address the challenges that the historic environment faces as we move into a period of climate-uncertainty. We are signatories to the Joint Heritage Sector Statement on Climate Change and members of the Climate Heritage Network

At Historic England, we are researching and promoting the role our cultural heritage can play in both climate change mitigation and adaptation for example looking at recycling and reusing existing historic buildings.

As an organisation we have a duty of care to protect our heritage. We support actions that address the causes of climate change and that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These goals are compatible. In fact, looking after and learning from the historic environment contributes positively to overall global sustainability and can help us adapt to and mitigate for climate change. Here’s how:

  • Understanding sustainability over the long term
    The UK has the oldest buildings stock in Europe, thanks to the skills of the conservation sector in ‘repair and reuse’. We’ve studied the materials, operation and design of our historic places, how they’ve changed through time, how they’ve been affected by transforming environmental conditions and how previous generations managed both structures and land.

    England’s historic landscapes, seascapes, built environment and archaeological sites provide environmental benefits, enhance our personal wellbeing and quality of life, and contribute to both national and local economies. Our expertise in looking after, maintaining and adapting heritage sites that have survived for generations uniquely equips us to understand sustainability over the long term. This knowledge can help us to manage historic places and structures for future generations.

  • Sympathetic, informed maintenance, upgrade and reuse of existing buildings and historic places is a sustainable approach

    Many of our historic buildings and sites date from a time before the industrial use of carbon and yet are durable and have survived for generations. We can learn a lot from the materials, techniques, design and management of these, including how they have responded to and been affected by changing environmental conditions.

    By caring for and reusing heritage assets we can:
    • Save energy and carbon dioxide through better maintenance, management and energy efficiency measures
    • Avoid the carbon dioxide of constructing new buildings and places

      This is particularly true for buildings

This knowledge can make an important contribution to a low-carbon, sustainable future, not just for those historic sites but also in providing ‘green skills’. The skills needed to maintain historic buildings, which make use of low-carbon, sustainable materials and practices, can also be applied to current and future construction.

  • Taking a ‘whole building approach’ leads to sustainable decision-making
    Modern buildings and historic buildings are different. Not just in their materials, but in their design and the way they function. Understanding how they function and all the factors that affect their energy use is critical for making decisions that improve the sustainability of structures we change, maintain and manage in the future. Factors include: construction, location, environment, historic significance, services and occupant behaviour. We call this the ‘whole building approach’ and it should be the starting point for any energy-efficiency improvements.

  • Considering the whole-life carbon of materials leads to more sustainable decisions
    Achieving sustainability requires the delivery of environmental, social and economic objectives. Delivering on the environmental objective means protecting and enhancing the historic environment, while also mitigating and adapting to climate change. This encompasses the whole life carbon of building materials – their reparability, durability, reusability and suitability for future conditions.

    The carbon impact of buildings is not only in their operational carbon (the carbon they require to run on a daily basis) or energy efficiency – it is also in the carbon embodied in their materials and labour. This includes their manufacture, transportation, installation, durability, reparability and reusability. When you take the long view older buildings and traditional materials are often extremely effective.

The environmental and sustainability benefits of our historic sites add to their importance for us all.

July 2020

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