COP26 - Week 1 Recap

COP 26 2021 logo

This blog is written by a former member of Max Fordham LLP, Katie Clemence-Jackson. 


The Built Environment is fundamental to many of the themes of COP26 and as it accounts for almost 40% of energy-related carbon emissions, it has a critical role to play in mitigating climate change while making cities resilient against existing climatic extremes at the same time.

Naturally, as Building Services Engineers, we paid close attention to this central aspect of the conference, following the discussions that were taking place and the decisions that were being made.

So, what were the key outcomes of the first COP26 week, and how do they affect our sector?

The first week of COP26 (the global climate conference) has seen some progress, with many world leaders signing pledges to end deforestation, cut down on methane emissions, and phase out coal. The Built Environment industry, and indeed the world, are watching cautiously to see whether our leaders can make plans to limit global temperature increase to below 1.5°C. Meanwhile activists, many of them young people, have flocked to Glasgow to demand urgent climate action.


An end to coal if world leaders don’t scuttle out of it

The phasing out of coal is a positive step if it can be realised. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal are the single biggest contributor to climate change worldwide, leading many to refer to it as the “dirtiest” fossil fuel. More than 40 countries have signed up to the pledge to phase out coal by 2030-2040, however there are some key countries who have not. The US, China, and India have not signed up, although the US has signed a separate deal to reduce public funding to overseas fossil fuel power plants.

The pledge is not specific on dates for coal to be phased out, and is not binding, so there are some doubts as to how effective it will be. It's estimated the agreements made so far should result in a global warming cap of 1.9°C - this week will be crucial to see what actions will be taken to meet those pledges, and what other commitments will be made to bring us down to the target of 1.5°C.


What about the other fossil fuels?

While coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, oil and gas are also big contributors. These are not on the agenda for COP26 but are a key focus for the UK Built Environment sector. The Government’s Heat and Buildings strategy, issued in the run-up to COP26, stated that it would be phasing out the installation of new natural gas boilers from 2035. It notes that decisive action should also be taken now where it is clear there are immediate benefits. Removing support for LPG and oil boilers is seen as one of these clear beneficial steps, and will be implemented in 2022.  

The strategy is less decisive than the stance taken by RIBA and LETI, which recommend that new buildings should be fossil fuel free from 2025. That said, the Heat and Buildings Strategy has numerous goals to make heat pumps an equally appealing and cost-effective solution by 2030, paving the way for their takeover.


A move to “all-electric” buildings

Regardless of the Government’s timeline, Local Authorities and climate-conscious clients are making the move towards fossil fuel free developments. Many of our projects at Max Fordham are proceeding with low carbon Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP) as the sole source of heat. The industry is gearing up to deliver and operate these “all-electric” buildings. Housing projects, particularly in local authorities with ambitious carbon targets, are being designed with ASHP heat networks. The third phase of the Agar Grove Estate Redevelopment in Camden is a prime example. Heat Pumps are a very different heat source to boilers and come with their own set of considerations, such as managing noise breakout, locating them outdoors, and choosing the right refrigerant. Obtaining a suitable electricity supply and managing the peak demand may start to become a more pressing concern as more developments go electric.

COP26 spells the end of coal in many countries. The UK Built Environment industry will need to think carefully about fuel sources, and how we balance them to meet demand while achieving our net zero carbon goals.

We, and the entire Built Environment, are looking ahead to what this second and final week of COP26 will bring – especially since a dedicated Built Environment Day has been set up for the first time ever, taking place on Thursday 11th November. Certainly one to watch out for!