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Hopes and fears for the industry ahead of COP26

COP26 By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 04 November 2021

The Glasgow SEC centre and Armadillo buildings from across the River Clyde. The Bell Bridge is visible to the left, the buildings are lit by coloured lights.


Simon Wyatt in front of office facade in a dark suit and blue shirt

Simon Wyatt

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Originally posted in Building.

In less than a month, the UK is due to host the biggest international conference on climate change in history, and when COP26 lands in Glasgow on 1 November, the eyes of the world will rest firmly on the UK and our progress toward net zero carbon.

This will be particularly evident on 11 November, when the conference hosts its first ever Cities, Regions & Built Environment Day, bringing together construction industry professionals from across the globe to discuss how we can best achieve our net zero carbon ambitions by 2050.

Compared to other nations, the UK is considered to be among the leaders in sustainable design, technology and even policy, because we have already committed to being net zero carbon by 2050 following a 1.5-degree pathway. However, the reality is that while we have the commitment, we do not yet have the legislature or policy to support it. At times this makes progress toward net zero carbon painfully slow, but even without legislature guiding the way, the built environment can do much more than we currently are to achieve net zero.

Over the course of this year, I have regularly written for Building’s Countdown to COP26 series about why the built environment needs to take the lead and drive the whole of the UK toward its net zero future. We already have the knowledge and technology to get us there, but there is still not enough drive or urgency within the built environment to achieve our goals. Words alone won’t get us there.

Everything we’re seeing from the government in terms of commitments and targets for net zero is great, but without hard rooted policy and legislation coming through to drive the entire industry from the bottom, it is meaningless.

The focus of COP26 will be for the national governments to review and refine their commitments from the current 3.3-degree pathway down well below the 2-degree pathway of the Paris Agreement, and ideally as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. It is great that for the first time at COP there will be a day dedicated to the built environment, where the industry can come together and share our commitments and best practice examples. However, while I think it is unlikely there will be any immediate industry-changing outcomes, I do think the commitments might start to focus policy makers minds and hopefully they will start by legislating the upfront embodied carbon.

Nevertheless, COP26 is an excellent opportunity for everyone in the built environment to come together to re-examine targets and look at what they can do at an industry level to go even further. What we really need is a commitment to 1.5-degree pathways from every single world leader in attendance, because that will in turn drive action from the Built Environment and other sectors in all regions. Since the UK has already made this commitment and aligned its targets with the 1.5-degree pathway, this is something we can influence on an international level.

Now is the time for real and tangible action. Over the past year we have seen the industry move at a greater speed and unity than ever before with the vast array of developers, consultants and contractors signing up to aspirational targets and commitments. The early pioneering projects have proven that net zero carbon is possible, but is also difficult, and we are already seeing people try and gamify and create shortcuts which are likely to undermine the progress.

An example of this manipulation, which is essentially greenwashing, is a recent project I was involved in working on a major government hubs redevelopment project using the government’s net zero carbon annex, which is comprehensive and aspirational. After several workshops detailing the steps to achieving net zero carbon in construction and operation, we were shocked when the response from the government’s advisors was to request that we modify the way we were calculating embodied carbon and operational energy to meet the targets on paper whilst still designing and building as they have done for the last two decades. We have repeatedly seen this inertia and unwillingness to consider new and alternative approaches but considering that these are the people that are supposed to be leading our pathway to 2050, it was very disappointing to see.

Another concerning example of developers cutting corners to artificially inflate their green credentials is a recent project where the timber scheme was not meeting the upfront embodied carbon targets. To meet the requirement, instead of looking at efficiencies, the client advisors suggested increasing quantities of timber over what was required structurally so that when sequestration was considered, overall carbon emissions were lower. This is obviously resource inefficient, wasteful and against the spirit of net zero carbon, but this misuse of timber’s embodied carbon credentials is unfortunately something that we are starting to observe more often.

One of the greatest achievements over the last two years has been the setting carbon and energy intensity targets which challenge and push design teams to the limit of what is possible. However, we are already starting to see people refer to them as the standard rather than as the general guidance that they are intended to be. This means that design teams aren’t necessarily aiming to achieve the lowest embodied carbon possible, rather they are looking for tick box compliance anyway they can, including creative accounting. Some buildings should be able to meet these targets, others will really struggle, but all buildings should aspire to go as low as possible and be looking to verify real performance in use. The available design tools and calculation are only meant as aids to help achieve these performance targets.

Another of the biggest challenges facing the built environment is around scope 3 tenant emissions. Institutional investors have signed up to eliminating scope 3 emissions as a way of getting to net zero carbon, but design teams have been struggling to comprehend these emissions as they are out of their control. Luckily the UKGBC and NABERS UK schemes break the whole building energy intensity targets down into base building and occupier emissions, and this means that design teams can focus on the areas that they influence. However, it has also given rise to a mentality in the industry of focussing on design calculations rather then in-use operational performance. As a result, some designers and developers are marketing buildings as ‘net zero carbon enabled’ once the base building design calculations meet the base build intensity targets, but this gives little thought to the occupier, usage and real operation of the building.

When LETI and RIBA set their embodied carbon targets, they were very much aspirational rather than based on what was achievable. Design teams have been endeavouring as best as they can to achieve or get close to these targets but given current technologies and processes, it is questionable whether some buildings can achieve them. This is fine as it gives rise to two pathways, the idea of retrofit first and reusing what we have, and the idea that we need to work closely with our supply chains to decarbonise them so they can meet these targets. But again, we have seen creative accounting and calculations making the targets appear achievable now. This ultimately undermines these two key principles and puts progress in jeopardy.

One of the sectors where we’ve seen the greatest interest in net zero carbon is commercial offices, which is surprising but welcome. Thanks to the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) and British Council for Offices (BCO), the newly launched NABERS UK seems to have penetrated the UK market with most of the leading developers now working on Design for Performance (DfP) pioneering schemes. The early results are promising, and most schemes are looking to achieve 4.5-5.5-star NABERS ratings, a feat which took the Australian market almost a decade to get to. The forerunning projects are currently going through the independent design review process, which is throwing up considerations and suggesting performances won’t be as good as initially expected. However, we still expect that these forerunners should be around the 3.5-5-star levels and await their results with bated breath.

Consistency of approach and methodology across the industry is important. Using different Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) software gives similar (but often different) results, and we recommend developers maintain consistent platforms. However even using the same software we see significant inconsistency depending on the competency and experience of the assessors. Embodied carbon and whole life carbon are relatively new fields in the UK, and although many people have used LCA software, there are probably only a handful of competent users in the UK. We find that less competent users generally report lower (i.e., better) numbers, more out of naiveté then deliberate intent. Therefore, it is important not only to benchmark high level targets but to break down the targets into the individual elements such as structure, sub-structure, façade, finishes and MEP. This will enable assessors to quickly and easily highlight venues that are out of range.

Similarly, for operational energy the more experienced operatives typically report higher (i.e., worse) numbers. We often see assessments excluding out of hours energy usage, trace heating, auxiliary landlord ventilation and cooling systems, parasitic loads and systems, which can all add up and make the difference between a star rating.

The key focus of the industry needs to be consistency and transparency. The Whole Life Carbon Network is undertaking a consistency project to align RICS, IStructE, RIBA, CIBSE, LETI and central government. The UKGBC are undertaking a review of net zero carbon certification which, if it is simple and concise, will drive this consistency and would be welcomed by the industry.

The final piece in this jigsaw puzzle is legislation. The government select committee, who are currently reviewing the role of the built environment including embodied carbon in response to their net zero carbon commitments, needs to act decisively and swiftly to put a raft of requirements in place within the next year. These should include:

  • Mandatory upfront and whole life embodied carbon assessments for all new and major refurbishment work
  • Mandatory public disclosure of operational energy performance of all buildings, with sliding minimum targets to 2050
  • A ban on new gas boilers for new and existing buildings
  • Subsidised insulation and energy efficiency works for existing homes and public buildings
  • Levelling up VAT on new and existing buildings (because currently it’s cheaper to knock down and rebuild), some even argue that they should be switched to have no VAT on retrofit and full VAT on new builds. Parity would be a long overdue start.

While I’ve dedicated a lot of time here to talking about what the industry needs to achieve, it’s also worth acknowledging how far we have come in only a couple of years. We now have clear commitments and buy-in at all levels, industry standards and definitions that are starting to align, best practice examples, tools and guidance, and most importantly, the will of the industry to change. Hopefully COP26 will be the springboard for real and meaningful action to meet our commitments and limit global temperatures to 1.5-degrees. But what is certain is that the world will be watching with more hope than expectation, let’s hope our leaders don’t let us down (again).