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State of the nation on net zero carbon in the lead up to COP26

Built Environment By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 01 April 2021

Glasgow SEC centre (a large round arena) viewed from the outside, internally lit up in rainbow colours against a deep blue night sky


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

Simon Wyatt

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Originally posted on Building

With COP26 dominating the conversation in 2021, we need to consider what that means for the built environment. Postponed from November 2020 to November 2021 because of the global pandemic, the delay has given the industry more time to prepare.

And just as well because we needed it. A year ago, when we were blissfully unaware of the chaos the year ahead would bring, there was almost no conversation around COP26 coming from the industry. Interest in net zero carbon solutions was starting to increase, but it hadn’t yet reached the fever pitch in demand that we are currently experiencing.

Marking five years (now 6) since the Paris Agreement was signed, COP26 was always going to be a significant milestone in the global fight against climate change. The conference will be the first review of the agreement, which represents the legal commitment of 195 signatory nations to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

When it is held in Glasgow later this year, COP26 will be the largest international conference ever held in the UK. Presidents and prime ministers from around the world will report back on the progress of the last six years, including US President Joe Biden, who recently re-signed the Paris Agreement after the Trump administration abandoned it in 2020.

Since the agreement was signed in 2015, all 195 countries have made climate declarations (so-called Nationally Determined Contributions), but the question is how do they align with the 1.5-2-degree targets? As they currently stand, these commitments may only limit warming to 3.3 degrees Celsius, so the aim of COP26 is to review these and increase the ambition.

But it’s not just the world’s political leaders who will be reporting, industry leaders including those of us in the built environment will also be accountable. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change recently recommended emissions reductions of 78% by 2035 in order to align with the Paris Agreement, and this applies to all sectors, including the construction industry, which as we know, is responsible for over 30% of UK emissions.

For the built environment, this reduction applies to new and existing assets, which will all need to be net zero carbon by 2050. But we are already seeing the industry’s preparedness to go much further, with many local authorities having set earlier dates, and developers signing up to initiatives like the Better Buildings Partnership Climate Commitment and the World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

Over the past 12 months, the biggest driver in the industry has undoubtedly been from finance, with increasing pressure on pension and hedge funds to meet more stringent ESG criteria including net zero carbon and climate resilience. Specifically, the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which works to improve reporting of climate-related financial information, have encouraged a considerable increase in reporting over the past year. This in turn has helped to ensure increasing pressure from all directions on developers to prioritise net zero carbon and ensure all elements of new and existing buildings meet the challenge.

Assets and portfolios which do not act run the risk of becoming ‘stranded’ and losing value. As decarbonisation requirements increase over time to align with Paris and net zero carbon trajectories, assets which overshot these targets risk financial penalties, devaluation and potential problems securing funding. Individual assets’ reduction pathways can be developed to avoid these stranding events using tools like the Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor (CRREM), which are being used to assess the climate risk of real estate portfolios and highlight potential stranding events.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) currently has a task force looking at what we can do to meet the challenge and in what timescale. With a dedicated built environment day now confirmed to be part of COP26, we are in a position to showcase the UK’s leadership in net zero carbon to the rest of the world. Mark Carney, former head of the Bank of England, recently put the urgency of the climate crisis into stark reality, stating that climate crisis deaths 'will be worse than Covid'. This statement is by no means an exaggeration. We’ve already seen one degree of climate change above preindustrial times, and we need to adapt and show resilience if we are to uphold our climate commitments and slow down the rate of change. If we fail, even in our short-term goals, the more we will incur risk, the need for adaptation and ultimately cost, - financial and biological - in achieving our climate ambitions.