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Let’s make 2016 a record breaking year for climate action

Later today, history will be made as the heads of state and politicians from over 150 countries gather at the UN headquarters in New York to officially approve the Paris Agreement, in what will be the largest one-day signing of any global deal.

More significantly, the ceremony could bring the agreement forged in December – a truly historical moment in itself – into effect much earlier than 2020 as had originally been intended. If so, it will continue the momentum towards limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees – which the international community broadly recognises as the threshold beyond which the effects of climate change will be catastrophic for life on our planet – and provide a major boost to our efforts to go further in reaching 1.5 degrees.

There is, of course, real urgency behind both these targets, as we’ve been making history (of the not-so-good kind) in other areas. Not only was 2015 the hottest year since records began back in 1850, smashing the previous marker set in 2014, but scientists – usually reluctant to single out specific months – recently announced that March 2016 was the warmest month on record. It surpassed the previous high set just four weeks earlier in February 2016, when two climate experts noted that the world is “hurtling at a frightening pace” towards 2 degrees of warming.

Yet despite these worrying figures, there is plenty of room for optimism. Nearly five months on from Paris, the green building movement is making substantial and promising progress on its own commitments to curb emissions from buildings.

On Buildings Day, December 3, the World Green Building Council committed to reducing the 84 gigatonnes of C02 that the International Energy Agency tells us can make the difference between a catastrophic 6 degrees of global warming and a manageable 2 degrees. We committed to leading a market transformation – with our 75 member Green Building Councils and their 27,000 corporate members – to achieve this goal, in particular focusing on driving net zero new buildings and major refurbishment of our existing building stock. And since, we – our GBCs and their members – have taken significant steps towards these goals.

World Green Building Council’s Net Zero project has taken significant steps towards supporting GBCs in their efforts towards Net Zero, and championing those who are leading. At COP21, the Green Building Council of Australia committed to introducing a Net Zero certification, and have been moving fast since to get this to market – they have partnered with both federal and state governments to ensure that it is able to actually certify carbon neutral buildings and they have thoroughly engaged their market and consulted their members on the specifics of this certification programme, which will operate like their market-leading Green Star program. Inspired by Australia, nine other GBCs (and growing!) are now working with WorldGBC on our global project to accelerate net zero in their own markets. WorldGBC will work with Architecture 2030, and other partners, on a number of technical aspects, and ultimately aim to involve many more of our GBCs in this ambitious programme by COP22.

We are also making good on our commitment to address the massive challenge that is renovating our existing building stock. We are starting in Europe where 35 per cent of buildings are over 50 years old, and are badly in need of energy efficiency improvements. Last month, 13 GBCs in Europe launched BUILD UPON, the world’s largest collaborative project on building renovation. Funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 project, these GBCs have started convening a major policy dialogue process  with over 1,000 organisations involved in renovation in order to develop a ‘national renovation strategy’ in each of the 13 participating countries. These strategies and their concrete policy and programme actions will spark the retrofit revolution we need to reach 2 degrees.

WorldGBC and our GBCs aren’t acting alone – we are continuously inspired and driven by the tremendous leadership of the 27,000 corporate members of GBCs around the world. For COP21, over 125 of GBCs’ corporate members set ambitious climate action targets, including members of WorldGBC’s own Corporate Advisory Board. GBCs have been actively supporting these commitments since Paris. For example, next month, the UK Green Building Council will report the results of its Sustainability 360 reviews to each of its Gold Leaf members on suggested areas of improvement and ‘best practices’ to follow from other market leaders to enable them to meet their commitments as quickly as possible.

I personally am excited and inspired by the tremendous momentum created by the green building movement, particularly since Buildings Day. But I also know that we must work beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in the green building world, as we must do much more, and much faster. The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, formed by France and UNEP and by WorldGBC (among others including RICS, WBCSD and GBPN), will help us reach a broader and powerful audience. Now comprised of 20 countries, 17 organisations and 10 companies, the Alliance met for the first time this week and agreed – in line with WorldGBC’s own COP21 commitment – to focus collectively on retrofitting existing buildings and driving the uptake of net zero carbon buildings. As countries sign the Paris Agreement, we know that more will join this Alliance and bring world leaders into the green building movement.

Together, we can make 2016 another record breaking year – not for rising global temperatures, but for real, on the ground action in delivering carbon reductions from buildings. Our work has already begun, but on this Earth Day, let’s double our efforts to combat climate change and show the world that green building is the solution.

Terri Wills is CEO at the World Green Building Council