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If we made reuse our default, we might do a lot of good for the world—and our budgets

You may be familiar with the concept of an urban heat island (UHI). If you’re not, if you live in a big city, especially a capital one, your inner thermostat certainly does.

If we made reuse our default, we might do a lot of good for the world—and our budgets
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
10 Nov 2023

An UHI is an urban area that experiences higher temperatures than its surroundings. And we’re really starting to think about what to do about that differential; the annual air temperature of a city with a million people can be 1–3 degrees Celsius warmer than its surroundings.

If that was ‘just the case,’ then we could shrug our collective shoulders and say there was nothing we could do about it. But it isn’t; we’re making that differential worse all the time, by replace natural land cover and trees with parking spaces, concrete buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat.

That means that around us in the built environment—as the US Environmental Protection Agency says—we have all the incubators for increased energy costs like for cooling ourselves with more air conditioning, air pollution levels (which now seems to be a really bad thing), and heat-related illness and mortality.

Construction: 40% of the carbon problem

The good news is there’s a bunch of things we can already do to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of the UHI problem, like creating more mini-inner city parks (‘pocket parks’), planting more trees, creating heat-reflecting roofs and so on.

But to start to deal with the climate crisis in our cities, we’re probably also going to have to start asking ourselves if we really want to keep building new things all the time. There’s a very good reason, in fact, not to: the built environment generates a hefty 40% of annual global CO2 emissions; ongoing building operations are responsible for 27% annually, while building and infrastructure materials and construction (typically referred to as ‘embodied carbon') are responsible for an additional 13%. (As a metric, the building industry’s only just behind all of the world’s energy sector as a GHG/greenhouse gas source.)

Many design engineers, like Arup, say we should instead be looking to retrofit and adapt existing buildings and spaces—and idea called adaptive reuse, where instead of tearing Building X down we default to think about repurposing an existing structure for new use. 

And we should be doing the same in our industry—sensibly looking to reuse things already there that can be given new or extended usefulness. BT, for example, has a pilot going on looking at if it can convert at least some decommissioned broadband cabinets out there on the street to EV (electric vehicle) charging points. Starting in Northern Ireland in the next few weeks, with more locations added across the UK before the end of the year, the pilots will run for two years and then ongoing commercialisation will be considered. 

Why this makes sense is that all this already-built urban furniture is currently used for providing copper-based broadband and phone services but will be unneeded soon as the upgrade to full fibre progresses.

Over time, as many as 60,000 of the operator’s 90,000 cabinets may be suitable for upgrades to EV charging points—and given that there are only around 45,000 public charge points today yet somehow, we’re not going to be able to buy new petrol/diesel vehicles in, er, six years’ time, the UK does indeed need what the Group calls “a massive upgrade to meet the needs of the EV revolution”.

Fewer uses of spades means less GHG—and may save us a bob or two, too

We could all do a lot worse than look at this example and adopt the adaptive reuse mindset ourselves. After all, as it stands we’re pretty awful as a sector in terms of reuse; our contribution to the e-waste mountain is more than familiar, and in fact may be getting worse, not better (“In total, IT and telecoms e-waste has increased by just under double (98%) between 2008 to 2022. If it were to follow this trend in future, we could be generating just under 55,000 tonnes by 2030”--and that’s in the UK alone.)

Reusing existing infrastructure means less roads coming up and pouring of concrete, which means less contribution to urban heat sinks, and which also saves us money.

So, let’s put our thinking caps on. What else could all those masts, wires, and boxes be doing usefully for us out on the street? How can we better support recycling and reuse of all our kit? Won’t 5G need a lot of local locations; can we be sensitive to where we need to dig—can we maybe graft on and reuse more?

Maybe plant a tree or two around your box while you’re at it. 

Can’t hurt.

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