Skip to main content

Politicians have failed so it’s over to industry to take the lead

Net Zero Carbon By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 18 November 2021

Aerial view of a road with forest on one side and deforestation on the other


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

Simon Wyatt

View bio

Originally published in Building in November 2021.

Over the last two weeks, it has been heartening to see the huge amount of debate and discussion in our industry and among the public to raise awareness around climate change that has been sparked by COP26. But after two years build up and two weeks of negotiations, this conference, which was billed as ‘our last chance to save the planet’, has arguably been a complete anti-climax. In terms of tangible global action, very little has been achieved and that is truly disappointing.

I’ve previously expressed a healthy amount of pessimism when asked whether I thought there would be any industry-changing outcomes arising from COP26. I had hopes of what could be achieved, and plenty of fears about what wouldn’t. And while there are a few notable positive outcomes that have arisen from the conference, even my cynicism couldn’t prepare me for how little would actually be achieved.

COP26 had three main aims, to phase out fossil fuels, limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees and provide financial assistance for those most affected by climate change. On all three of those it has been an unmitigated failure, with the wording on phasing out coal and subsidies of fossil fuel watered down, no financial agreements and current pledges putting us significantly off-track and headed for warming well above 2 degrees.

There have been a few glimmers of hope, but they have been few a far between with little weight behind them. They include the surprise announcement that the US and China would work together this decade to try and limit global temperature rise to 1.5C, which is deserving of a positive mention, as is the promise from more than 100 world leaders (including Brazil) to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. But again, like most of the pledges we have seen it’s questionable whether this 9-year time frame is soon enough and will achieve anything.

There have also been some minor agreements by groups of countries to cut methane emissions and move away from coal, such as the alliance from a small number of gas producers to end oil and gas production by 2050. This is obviously far too late, and without full global commitments from some of the biggest emitters, it is uncertain what they will amount to.

So, after two weeks of international fanfare and negotiations we have managed to move the degree to which we limit global temperature rises from 2.7 degrees to 2.4 degrees. A dismal achievement that really isn’t anything to be proud of given the urgency of the climate emergency. The optimistic net zero carbon pledges give a 1.8 degree rise by 2100 but with little detail, they are meaningless. Meanwhile, if you look at the more detailed 2030 pledges and action plans, then we are at 2.4-degree rise. COP26 has given us a 0.3-degree reduction when it needed to be a 1.2-degree reduction, and that’s just depressing.

Key impacts on industry

It was great to see the industry come together last week on the first ever Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day. People were discussing problems and solutions, debating pros and cons, introducing new ideas and learning from each other. However, for all the talk, it didn’t lead to any policy or action, which seems to be a trend with this COP.

What this means for industry is that we must step up and fill the political and carbon vacuum left by our leaders. We have seen a raft of pledges and commitments from industry in the lead into COP, now we must see them put into action. It is not enough to commit to count carbon on all projects, we must commit to reducing it now, not in the distant future. We must also make minimum performance targets on upfront embodied carbon and operational for all projects, not just counting and offsetting, which is greenwashing at its most basic. If we are to have any form of credibility as an industry, we must also phase out and ban the direct use of fossil fuel in buildings as soon as possible.

But we are already seeing a number of these commitments falter at project level due to a lack of knowledge and a deeply ingrained culture of inertia and business as usual. With project teams reporting additional costs for almost all net zero carbon initiatives even when they appear to be reducing the quantities of materials and labour, everything seems to be an addition, even when it’s a removal.

There is also a gap between construction firms’ pledges and what the industry can deliver in terms of embodied carbon now. To meet these aspirations a significant engagement with supply chains is required to decarbonise them, but to date there has been little movement in this area, and it needs accelerating.

Another area which needs acceleration is skills and training both of construction workers for the installation and maintenance of low carbon technologies like heat pumps, as well as competent consultants who can advise and assess carbon accurately.

It seems we are at a real tipping point where we must begin to deliver meaningful action, starting with behaviour change, challenging every decision and norm. This was elegantly articulated by my colleague Sarah Linnell at COP’s Built Environment Day, when she said, that “simply changing the windows in a commercial office development from aluminium to composite aluminium and timber is equivalent to the savings from 900 years of a planet-based diet.” Every choice we make as designers is important and has a carbon impact, so we must be informed and choose wisely.

As I’ve said before, the final piece in this jigsaw puzzle is legislation. Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day at COP26 was an opportunity to push for global regulation on embodied carbon of materials, which seems to be a completely wasted opportunity. The UK and EU are likely to introduce these regulations soon, but as over three-quarters of new buildings built in the world between now and 2050 will be in the global south, the impact of this will be limited at best.

For the UK, a government select committee are currently reviewing the role of the built environment in meeting its commitments, these must include the following as a minimum:

  • A planning policy in favour of retrofit first over knock down and rebuild
  • 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

What is clear is that we cannot wait for this government to solve the problem, the industry needs to step up, capitalise on momentum and take a lead if we are to have any hope of keeping 1.5C ‘alive’. No more ‘blah, blah, blah’.