A Sustainable Future

01 Mar 2021

To celebrate Scottish Apprenticeship Week, we are spotlighting members of the Future Leaders' Forum: a group of future leaders for the built environment. 

Hear Aisling O'Reilly, who works in the Department for Social Responsibility and SustainabilityUniversity of Edinburgh and is vice-chair of the forum, discuss what a sustainable future means for our future workforce. 

What is the current built environment landscape with climate change, net zero obligations and COP26?

For decades, the built environment has produced exemplar buildings that are highly efficient and made to last. These buildings are celebrated and widely publicised. However, the next steps haven't been taken to make these exemplars the norm. There is something holding us back. Is the cause a bias towards tried and tested approaches? A desire to “wait it out” until while others absorb the risk? Or a preference to carry on with business as usual until legislation mandates change? In the grasp of a climate emergency, these attitudes are the last thing we need. 

For Scotland to achieve net zero by 2045, we need definitive and replicable examples of leadership across all sectors. If we wait for policies to force our hand, we deny ourselves of the opportunities to innovate and inspire change. 

That’s not to say that achieving net zero will be without its challenges. There will be many. Firstly, we need to ensure that new buildings do not contribute to climate change. They must be highly efficient with a reduced demand for heating and cooling. Any demand that does exist needs to be met with renewable energy sources. Secondly, we must retrofit buildings, on an unprecedented scale. Thirdly, we must prepare for electrification. Despite the other opportunities on the horizon (hydrogen, for example), there will be a shift towards electrification in the next decade. The question is, how do we support a transition that is smart, affordable and reliable? Finally, a culture change is required. When it comes to decision making in the built environment, we need to broaden the scope of our conversations beyond capex and ROIs to those that adopt a long-term view, with sustainability principles in mind.

The arrival of COP26 brings a spotlight on the UK. Net zero carbon requires transformational change across all sectors. As we take the world stage, the built environment can show how we are stepping up to the challenge.


What has your personal career been like? How has sustainability been integrated into that?

Unlike some, my career started with sustainability and moved into the built environment. My education is based in environmental science. On leaving University I started my career as an Energy Advisor, providing advice to Scottish householders on how to stay warm, save carbon and keep on top of their energy bills. This quickly developed into more technical roles where I progressed to working with the private rental sector and then in home renewables. A core component of these roles was surveying properties and providing advice on suitable energy saving measures. My current role at the University of Edinburgh, requires me to decarbonise our campuses and align with the University’s Zero Carbon by 2040 goal. This involved the assessment of how we can decarbonise heat as part of the University’s energy masterplan. It also called for the delivery of carbon saving projects through the Sustainable Campus Fund. My most recent work is part of the working group on Low Carbon Estate Development, where we work to create a pathway to net zero construction and retrofit.

The built environment is an area I’m passionate about. The challenges presented by the Climate Emergency are clear, as are the opportunities. Such an emergency demands a response that is innovative, dynamic and swift. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be working in the sector.


What do future generations and workers need to be conscious of with sustainability?

A climate emergency demands an urgent response, which we’re now seeing in the form of new and revised climate change policies with ambitious targets. The scale and pace of work ahead of us can’t be underestimated. Future generations need to be aware that now isn’t the time for “business as usual” and that they’ll be coming into a sector undergoing transformational change. The way we’ve done things before, won’t necessarily be the way we do things going forward. Be ready to hit the ground running.

A core component of sustainability should always be fairness and equality. The built environment needs to be transformed in a way that is just, where no one gets left behind. A great way to ensure a just transition is to ensure that all voices are represented through a diverse workforce, who are ready to challenge the status quo and bring wider, valuable perspectives.


Back to news