COP26 Reflections: What this means for the Built Environment

One of the final days of COP26 was dedicated to the impact of the built environment, a sector that contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions – 7% of global CO2 emissions and 40% of the UK’s total. Meeting the UK emissions targets requires not only decarbonisation of the entire sector but also a 13% increase of workers in the sector by 2028, according to the Construction Industry Training Board. In recognition of the sector’s need to transform quickly, a network of more than 100 mayors from major world cities (C40 Cities) have launched the Clean Construction Action Coalition in order to work together to create a decarbonised, resilient, low-emission built environment sector.

Decarbonisation of the Built Environment

Forecasts suggest that 80% of emissions from the built environment over the next 30 years will come from buildings that already exist. The UK Green Building Council estimate that this could even be as high as 95%. Focus for the built environment should therefore be on the energy efficiency and sustainability retrofit of existing buildings, reducing operational emissions. For embodied emissions and the owner of the building, using low-carbon materials and considering alternatives to traditionally used resources will be essential to decarbonisation. Emerging technologies in building materials, such as CO2 enriched cement, can help reduce emissions by up to 70% and ultimately make the cement stronger. New buildings are also set to be subject to tightened regulation around design and construction, particularly aspects such as insulation, air quality and energy systems. The increased adoption of digital construction platforms, including BIM, digital twins and offsite construction can help reduce the environmental impact of new builds. Companies also need to recognise the difference between the scope emissions associated with their business, as broken down by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Any effective corporate climate change strategy requires an understanding of how the value chain and upstream/downstream activities affect the greenhouse gas emissions associated with company activities – particularly as regulations and transparency reporting becomes more prevalent and streamlined.

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Upskilling current talent and recruiting new for the increase in green jobs

The need for additional workers within the built environment is essential to the delivery of improvements to existing buildings. The biggest post-COP recruitment challenge is attracting the best talent to aid in the improvement of sustainable practices, and changing the image of an industry by championing diversity within the workforce. Retraining existing talent will be dictated by demand for skills associated with green jobs, and the time taken to develop these new skillsets means such retraining should be addressed as soon as possible.

Government and Corporate Coordination

Net zero commitments made at COP26 came from coalitions of multiple stakeholders, governments, companies, multilateral organisations and financial institutions, as key actors in finding a solution to systemic issues. Co-ordinating activities in the path to net zero amongst these stakeholders enables the shift to greener processes, creating new markets for greener commodities and businesses. Corporate governance is set to have a new set of climate standards from the International Sustainability Standards Board in the second half of 2022. Intending to simplify the reporting process, it should help improve transparency and accountability within the various sectors, a topic we previously explored earlier this month.

Within the UK, the government has announced targets of cutting the CO2 emissions of all new-build homes by at least 75% from 2025, under the Future Homes Standard. This is a clear indication of the increasing pressure on construction companies to cut embodied and operational emissions. It also highlights the pressure on existing talent to develop the new skills associated with the shift in practice. Already, the government has rejected plans for a new landmark building in London, called the Tulip, due to the tower’s embodied carbon emissions and unsustainable whole life-cycle.

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Predictions for 2022

  • Mandatory reporting to increase transparency concerning corporate sustainability initiatives
  • Finance from institutional investors and governments shifting to decarbonisation and adaptation
  • Need for clear communication from leaders on changes made since COP26 to stakeholders
  • Fulfilment of pledges to end support for fossil fuels in overseas spending and prioritising clean energy
  • National action on the commitments made in COP26 pledges – action coming not just from industry but governments as well