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Building ambition: The future of the built environment post COP26

Cristina Gamboa, CEO, WorldGBC

It is now nearly a week since Alok Sharma closed the negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow. Since then, there has been a chorus of views on whether the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ has been a success, a failure or somewhere in between.

My view is that debating whether Glasgow is a ‘win’ or ‘lose’ detracts from some of the important conversations and actions we need to take as we look to COP27 in Egypt in 2022.

As a natural optimist, the fact that the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ keeps 1.5⁰C alive – albeit barely since new commitments put us on a 2.4⁰C path of warming – gives me some grounds for hope. And now more than 89% of the global economy is covered by a net zero target.

More urgent action and concerted efforts from industry, sub-national governments, national governments and the finance community is needed to give us a realistic chance of meeting the Paris Agreement and keeping a 1.5⁰C limit to global warming within reach. But let’s assess the progress.

What happened at COP26?

Under the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’, countries are requested to arrive in Egypt next year with strengthened emissions reduction commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The text also includes a call to “phase-out” inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and to accelerate efforts towards the “phase down” of unabated coal power. And while the last minute watering down of this was disappointing, it marks the first time fossil fuels have been mentioned in COP texts, and sends a strong signal to countries to accelerate renewable energy.

On finance adaptation, the Pact requires rich countries to ‘at least double’ funds for adaptation by 2025 but falls short of expectations of nations in the front-lines of climate emergencies on “Loss and Damage”, with the final text lacking any specific financial commitments. The text also acknowledges with ‘deep regret’ the failure of developed nations to meet their $100bn annual climate finance target for 2020 and urges countries to fully deliver through 2025.

There were also a number of key announcements in the first week including a leaders pledge on deforestation, a pledge to supporting land rights of Indigenous Peoples, a global methane pledge, a Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement and a declaration on electric vehicles, to name a few.

Built Environment at COP26

And while there are valid concerns that these outcomes and commitments are not enough, I remain hopeful.

Why? At COP26 the built environment community showed up, demonstrating its leadership, and was finally given some well-deserved political recognition at this climate summit as critical for climate action, resilience and social value. Also, non-state actors or businesses, cities and regions were firmly positioned as key market demand drivers and policy enablers.

In the year preceding COP26, WorldGBC convened a network of stakeholders to put the concept of deep collaboration to work, and – thanks to the collective advocacy of the #BuildingToCOP26” coalition supported by the High-Level Climate Champions – the UK Presidency granted a dedicated day for our sector.

At COP26, we saw the private sector showing they understand the scale of the problem. Today, $1.2 trillion real estate assets under management are now a part of the Race to Zero, a UN backed campaign for non-state actors to commit to halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest. As a front runner initiative in the Race to Zero, 44 businesses including developers, designers and asset managers representing $85 billion annual turnover signed World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to accelerate action to tackle whole life carbon emissions from the built environment by 2030.

All of this work coalesced at Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day at COP26. Following more than 130+ events, our network of members and partners announced 26 initiatives that exemplify deep collaboration and will inspire further positive systemic transformation in the built environment, including the launch of UK Green Building Council’s Whole Life Carbon Roadmap.

What was most encouraging was to listen to the voices of City Mayors, Country Ministers and CEOs who all recognised the critical role our sector can play in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the language of Whole Life Carbon is now mainstream, and there is a common understanding from all stakeholders that action on the built environment requires holistic consideration of both operational and embodied resource consumption.

There was some increased government action with the number of countries who mentioned buildings in their NDCs increasing from 90 in 2015 to 136 in 2021, with a +30% increase in the number of countries with building energy codes.

However, many of them fall short of the degree of ambition needed to drive the required – and achievable – performance levels. Some countries that expect growth over the coming decades do not even have energy codes. This will result in buildings being built that do not meet the necessary standards for today’s or future climates.

For the first time, the Pact explicitly calls on countries to rapidly scale up the deployment of energy efficiency measures, which are critical for the built environment to transform into a climate solution.

So we witnessed much needed movement on the policy side, but more is needed to truly match the level of ambition already being demonstrated by industry.

What’s next?

My optimism is strengthened by the energy and appetite for action that I saw in Glasgow both inside and outside the venue, particularly from the climate activists and youth. Although many of these important voices were not at the negotiating table, it is clear from the leadership on the industry side that they are finally being listened to. Now we need to push governments who are being too slow to take action.

If this energy and enthusiasm can be converted into action to deliver our collective goals, then I do believe we can keep 1.5⁰C in reach. As we turn attention to COP27 in Egypt, we must build on the momentum started at COP26 and learn to really listen to the voices of those communities most impacted by climate change. Adaptation, climate justice and finance will be high up in the agenda.

As a community of building and construction stakeholders, we are uniquely positioned to ensure that pledges, commitments and promises are turned into action.

As leaders across our WorldGBC network, I ask you to:

  1. Work with your governments to ensure building energy efficiency forms a central element of revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to be submitted at COP27
  2. Work with industry and encourage them to sign WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment and the Race To Zero
  3. Demand that investors and the finance community only invest in sustainable buildings and infrastructure
  4. Promote a holistic approach to the development of any infrastructure project
  5. Accelerate deep collaboration so that we can develop the tools needed to ensure a just transition to a low carbon economy.

COP26 put the built environment on the agenda and WorldGBC is determined to keep this topic at the forefront of these climate negotiations.

So keep pushing and contributing from wherever you stand in the value chain! We all have a role to play in this climate fight and it’s time to keep fighting.