What were the triumphs and tribulations of COP26?

COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, was held in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 13 November 2021. The event brought world leaders together to discuss how we can implement change and protect our planet for future generations.

However, was the event a success?

Now that we have had time to reflect, we can consider the outcomes of COP26. The most significant pledges to combat climate change concerned coal use and methane restrictions, the reversal and ending of deforestation (albeit by 2030) and commitments from financial organisations to back away from fossil fuels. All of these pledges were well publicised.

However, to some extent the commitment most relevant to the built environment sector went under the radar. This pledge concerned the procurement of low-carbon steel and concrete, with the UK, along with Canada and India, agreeing that low-carbon steel will be prioritised in public construction projects and that embodied carbon impacts will need to be disclosed by 2025.

For a conference that was marketed as a turning point for humanity, these commitments are not ambitious enough and they still allow for mounting emissions and continued inequity. This is despite many inspiring speakers labouring the point to the COP26 Presidency during the proceedings. Fortunately, outside the Blue Zone, many were walking the walk, figuratively and literally marching; campaigning for the change that is required.

2021 is also the first year that the built environment has been recognised as a key focus in relation to the climate emergency, thanks to hard campaigning by the World Green Building Council (UKGBC). ‘Built Environment Day’ on 11 November was marked by the release of the UKGBC ‘Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap’ in the Green Zone of COP26. Our Thrive Director and UKGBC regional representative, Philippa Birch-Wood, presented this roadmap to the West Midlands Combined Authority at their COP26 Roadshow on the same day.

Philippa shares her thoughts:

“The Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap by the UKGBC is a brilliant piece of work. It is reassuring to know that a Net Zero Carbon built environment is possible in the UK.  However, much like all other industry guidance, it needs government level support to help us get there. The guidance calls for a nationwide retrofit programme, energy performance disclosure in non-domestic buildings, a design for performance approach, and enforced limits on embodied carbon and considered infrastructure investment. As Greta Thunberg has exclaimed, “we are the leaders”, in the absence of regulations we need to be designing and delivering buildings in line with these recommendations. The stakes have never been higher.”

What were the core discussion points outside the main COP26 arena?

At COP26, essential discussions were not just restricted to the Blue and Green Zones, there was a considerable number of fringe events taking place, many with open invitations.

Our Thrive Project Manager, Taleen Josefsson, was fortunate enough to be in Glasgow during COP26. Taleen’s time was spent representing the architectural profession and supporting the activities of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN). ACAN had a strong presence in Glasgow, hosting three exhibitions about the organisation’s ongoing climate action work across Europe, hopes and visions for the future from each thematic and regional group, and a booth displaying a variety of natural construction materials. ACAN also hosted a series of hybrid knowledge-sharing events discussing the built environment’s impact on the environment, policy hurdles, solutions, and exemplary case studies.

Below we have outlined the events and exhibitions that Taleen attended and the core points of discussion at each.

Event: Architecture of Crisis – Hopes & Visions, an exhibition by ACAN
Key points of discussion: Regulating whole life carbon, building with bio-based materials, ending fossil fuel consumption and designing for mitigation and adaptation to the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Event: RIBA Built Environment Summit
Key points of discussion: Some of the technologies being promoted as climate solutions do not exist, are not available at the scale needed, and will not be available in the time we have left to make a large enough difference.

Event: Deconstructing Carbon
Key points of discussion: Understanding the current regulatory and climate context, how the built environment contributes, and exploring embodied carbon-focused solutions from the perspective of built environment professionals.

Event: Replicating Retrofit
Key points of discussion: The dire need for residential retrofit to provide warm, healthy homes and to reach the UK operational energy goals, of which poorly insulated homes are a major carbon offender. There was a strong focus on building community-led local markets for retrofit.

Event: Decarbonising Scottish Construction: How do we make the changes we need?
Key points of discussion: The transitioning to the use of bio-based materials and forms that emerge from playing on the strengths of those bio-based materials. From the landscape design perspective, the event discussed designing with a landscape-led approach in order to integrate the benefits of natural/landscape functions into the design.

Event: The Sustainable Glasgow Landing
Key points of discussion: Vertical gardens and how they can bring food production closer to the consumer, while reducing potable water demand. Also, the COP26 House, an example of applying timber-based construction products. The house exceeded the RIBA 2030 Challenge whole life carbon targets by 22%. Beyond carbon considerations, the building is designed for in a standard 1.2m grid for prefabrication, can be self-built by two people, and is planned for future deconstruction, allowing for panel/material reuse or simple recycling at end-of-life.

Event: Fridays for Future Global Climate Strike
Key points of discussion: 30,000 people joined the march led by the Fridays for Future organisation, including Greta Thunberg.

What were Taleen Josefsson’s conclusions from her time at COP26?

“Overall, being in Glasgow for a selection of COP26 events was incredibly energising; outside of the main halls where the agreements the world needs were not reached, the people on the ground shared their work, ambitions, and passion for climate action. The thousands of bodies that joined the climate marches demonstrated their commitment and care; there are thousands of people working towards solutions. Many of the demonstrators are not making the headlines, but they are the ones making the work happen, and it is those we should be looking to for the real leadership in the midst of the current crisis.

While we wait for regulation from governing bodies, there are industry leaders directing the way for improvement, as well as the communities for whom the built environment is created that are demanding change.”

Taleen Josefsson, Thrive Project Leader

To discover more about Taleen’s time at COP26, view the video below:

Documents of note for further reading

Both ahead of and during COP26, industry organisations released frameworks and best practice guidance to provide a way forward for construction industry professionals. Documents of note include:

Architects Declare Practice Guide

LETI Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide

LETI Client Guide for Net Zero Carbon Buildings

UKGBC’s Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap

RIBA’s Built for the Environment Report

The Anti-Greenwash Playbook

To find out more about our approach to sustainable design, download our Thrive brochure.