COP26 - Week 2 Recap

COP 26 2021 logo

I’m not alone in saying that I am disappointed in the results of COP26. Alok Sharma, the COP26 President, himself fought back tears as the Glasgow Climate Pact was reached, apologising as the late amendment to the agreement on coal was added to the text.

The aim of COP26 was to keep 1.5 alive (the 1.5oC temperature rise target set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015, to avoid the worst effects of climate change); has this happened? I’m not sure. Before the conference started, when looking at actual policies rather than pledges, studies showed that the world was on track for a 2.7oC temperature rise by 2100. Individual nations need to step up to bring this in line with 1.5. A positive pledge within the Glasgow Climate Pact is the requirement for the emission reducing plans of each nation to be revisited next year; countries are to show that they have strengthened their commitments to allow 1.5oC to be reached. Previously these plans were only required to be updated every five years which would have meant the next update in 2025. Bringing this update forward to 2022 will hopefully refocus efforts and, in terms of our industry, should mean that we see more challenging policy come forth sooner than might have otherwise been expected.

Other key achievements of the deal included some increased financial help for developing countries, and of course the much-talked-about watered-down inclusion of a commitment to phase down coal use. This is in addition to the other pledges previously announced in terms of reductions to methane emissions, deforestation and a new climate agreement between China and the US (the world’s two biggest CO2 emitters).


What does this all mean for the construction industry?

As the world’s leaders gathered in Glasgow for these key negotiations, we heard from politicians, activists, industry groups and representatives from countries that are already directly dealing with the effects of climate change. Also, hundreds of thousands of people protested, demanding urgent climate action.

As well as being able to watch the conference itself remotely, there have been an overwhelming number of events going on in Scotland and virtually. November 11th was also the first 'Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day' at a COP, turning the spotlight onto our sector.

While the Glasgow Climate Pact itself might feel somewhat disappointing, I don’t think we can say the same for the response from the UK Built Environment Industry, which involved the COP26 Build Better Now virtual pavilion, various fringe conferences, tours round the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, the launch of the UKGBC Scotland office at SpACE (an excellent new venue in Edinburgh showcasing innovation in Architecture, Carbon and Environment) and inspiring workshops (such as the one hosted by LETI, which set out a plan to produce a retrofit guide for non-domestic buildings).

There was also a host of new guidance published, including the UKGBC’s new Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, the final launch of the Scottish Government’s Net Zero Public Sector Buildings Standard, and the Architect’s Declare New Practice Guide, to name just a few.

Buildings in the UK make up approximately 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions. To meet the Paris Agreement target, between now and 2030 global CO2 emissions need to reduce by approximately 45% and so we have a huge part to play.

Our industry has shown that we have the tools and knowledge to build sustainably, and we are ready and willing to act. There are so many great case studies out there already showing sustainable design in practice and many businesses have also signed up to pledges to promote zero-carbon design and ensure their practices reduce their own carbon emissions (e.g. by signing up to the UN Race to Zero Campaign and World GBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment).


How can we make a difference?

It’s our duty as an industry to challenge our clients and push for zero-carbon buildings. Any new buildings built today that are not zero carbon are just adding to the problem and will need to be converted to zero carbon later. Every zero-carbon project that we work on helps to drive the market demand for sustainability and phase out fossil fuels.

  • If demolition of an existing building is planned, we must challenge that; can the building be saved from demolition or, if not, can the materials be meaningfully reused? Embodied carbon is due to become more significant than operational energy by 2035 and so we need to be taking this into account now.

  • We must install low-carbon heat sources such as heat pumps; it is not only morally the right thing to do but also the market will soon not accept anything else – I know if I was buying a new property, I would not buy one with a gas boiler, so why should we be installing them on our projects?

  • Advocate the use of Passivhaus; buildings must be energy efficient as well as fuelled from a sustainable source not only to reduce carbon impact but also to reduce inequality and fuel poverty.

  • We need to make use of frameworks such as soft landings to ensure our buildings perform well in reality and not just theoretically; and we mustn’t forget that it is not only climate action we need, but also to address biodiversity loss.

It’s easy to feel disheartened by COP26 (I was), but remember, everyone can make a difference. Yes, we do need more policy interventions in the UK and globally to meet our targets. However, as professionals working within the built environment, we not only can make a huge difference, we must.


Infographic for COP26, with black text depicting hands holding a world of green and blue text.