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COP27: the built environment faces its greatest opportunity

Climate Change By Mario Saab, Head of Sustainability, MENA – 09 November 2022

An audience listening to a panel of speakers in a conference


Mario Saab wearing a blue suit while standing in-front of a glass wall

Mario Saab

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This article was originally published by Construction Week.

We all recall the sense of global optimism that emerged when the Paris Climate Agreement came into being. However, despite setting targets for achieving the milestone of net zero by 2050 and limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, what we are hearing from COP27 in Egypt is that we won't make it.

This is a sobering prospect. The climate we had become used to is irrevocably changing, and the trajectory is now looking like 2 degrees at least of average global temperature rise.

I believe this is a clear indicator that targets and aspirations are not enough. What I would like to see from COP27 is the idealistic becoming more realistic. We need the world leaders and experts gathered in Egypt to emerge with tangible expectations because the imperative to reduce emissions is even greater now that we have seen what is at stake. Deadly heatwaves in Europe, floods in Pakistan and Australia, retreating glaciers, vanishing coral reefs – climate change is happening in real time now, not in the future.

Given the big picture impacts and cascading effects, the role of our buildings and urban settlements in ensuring we can adapt to climate change and mitigate rising emissions is even more critical. If we are to move from simply making pledges and painting theoretical future scenarios to the point of achieving tangible results, we must start now.

Mitigation and adaption

The IPCC Working Group report released in April 2022 highlighted the huge potential contribution existing buildings can make in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. Energy efficiency can be improved through retrofits and switching to renewable energy to mitigate emissions, while improvements in thermal performance will keep people safe and well during climate extreme events such as heatwaves.

What we need is for the leaders at COP27 to emerge with clear ideas about how they can commit to working with existing buildings and lifting their performance at the government level. Too often, we see a focus on a handful of new, exemplar projects, rather than attention being paid to the thousands upon thousands of smaller, older, everyday buildings that most people live, work and shop in.

We possibly need authorities to set specific criteria for energy use and emissions for all buildings, and accompanying this, guidelines, programs and processes for raising every building up to that level. The targets should be based on the IPCC reports, and the approach needs to be based on the technologies and strategies we already have.

We should also look for approaches that achieve both adaptation and mitigation simultaneously – for example, cultivating an urban forest which also sequesters carbon.

Governments and industry both have a role to play in developing regionally appropriate guidance on the design and delivery of retrofits for existing buildings. Sharing knowledge between disciplines and building capacity in the trade's workforce will also be vital, as will education for owners and operators of properties.

Green finance mechanisms

The final piece of the puzzle is finance. Globally, we need a green finance mechanism to support multiple aspects of the transition. That should involve every level of the banking sector from the World Bank and IMF down to regional and local financial entities. There needs to be clarity around the degree to which climate risk and carbon risk will drive decision-making for loans, investors and insurance.

We also need more venture capital and R&D investment in new technologies. While it is true the technology we need for improving existing building performance is available and proven, the other requirement for full decarbonisation is improvements to renewable energy generation, distribution and storage technologies. Solar photovoltaic (PV) is currently somewhat inefficient, with a 22-23% efficiency for generation. To power the world, we either need to cover huge areas of land with solar PV or we need better, more efficient PV as well as improvements in the efficiency of distribution, storage, dispatch and demand management.

Engaging all levels of society

To bring it all together, we need governments and the private sector to improve their efforts to communicate the desperate need for climate action. Just articulating targets, goals and ambitions is not enough to convince everyone. This is especially true if we consider how the dialogue is often top-down, and focused on the negative risks, rather than a discourse that engages all levels of society and centres the opportunities and benefits of mitigation and adaptation.

For example, when retrofits result in lower demand for electricity and improvements to public health, there is a reduction in costs for energy providers and the local health authority. This kind of holistic thinking needs to be articulated more clearly and strongly, rather than the usual building-by-building silo-by-silo narratives.

The other benefit of putting existing buildings at the heart of this question is that people understand them: they are familiar, they are tangible, and they have meaning for the whole community. Existing buildings are where we can turn the words of policy into practical examples that demonstrate what the IPCC recommendations mean for us all.