Lessons from COP26: part 3.


What does in mean for the built environment?

The climate challenge, and the issues discussed in part 1 and 2 of this series, will have ramifications for the built environment sector. It’s important to recognise that buildings and construction activities represent 38% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete alone is responsible for 8% of global emissions.

The nationally determined pledges at COP26 will need new actions to address the performance of buildings and impacts of construction.

In the UK, the government has proposals to increase minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) for commercial, industrial and residential buildings, and proposals for mandatory energy disclosure. Measures to improve EPC ratings to a B-rating by 2030 are expected to reduce energy consumption by 30% compared to 2015. These are likely to entail improving controls, upgrading plant and more efficient lighting etc.

Future Buildings Standard.

The government’s 2025 Future Buildings Standard is proposing to outlaw gas boilers in new homes and ramp up thermal insulation standards. Heat pumps will become the norm in new buildings. Indeed, the World Green Building Council, which advocates all new buildings should be net zero by 2030, states that new buildings should effectively be all electric, with no fossil fuels, to be classified as net zero.

Many landlords of large property portfolios are already reviewing the performance of their existing stock and planning refurbishments to improve energy efficiency to avoid them being stranded undesirable assets.

A simple rule is, if equipment needs replacing, make sure that the new system will be more efficient and lower carbon, including replacing gas boilers with heat pumps or other low carbon heat source.

The UK-Green Building Council launched the Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap at COP26, led by our own Tom Spurrier. It shows a vision and proposals, recommended by industry, for achieving net zero carbon in the construction, operation and demolition of buildings and infrastructure. The main Roadmap elements include a carbon footprint for the UK built environment, a Net Zero Carbon trajectory to 2050, and policy recommendations with action plans to deliver the 2050 scenario.

The whole life carbon approach will need to look at embodied carbon in construction and refurbishments, in addition to operational carbon. Decarbonisation of the grid will make future electricity supplies cleaner with upfront carbon in construction become half, or more, of the life cycle carbon footprint for a project. Whilst assessing embodied carbon isn’t currently mandatory for new developments, it is required by the London Plan and there an industry-wide advocacy group (that we are part of) is recommending that embodied carbon assessments become a regulatory requirement, known as Part Z.

A consequence of reducing embodied carbon will be leaner structures, with more recycled content, lower carbon concrete and steel, and increased use of lower impact materials such as timber.

Leading developers are starting to adopt a Design for Performance strategy which measures the success of a building based on the verification of energy performance outcomes in operation. This will provide assurance to investors that performance gaps are reduced and show tenants that the building is efficient.

Reflections on transparency and authenticity.

Key messages from several of the debates around COP26 were about the need for better transparency and authenticity. Transparency entails declaring ambitions, tracking progress and publishing outcomes. As an example, signatories of the UN Race to Zero are required to publish progress and achievements of organisational reductions in carbon emissions. This makes companies more accountable because employees, investors and other stakeholders will be able to see whether an organisation is meeting its commitments. Authenticity means being genuine about actions and not greenwashing.

Academics pointed out at COP26 that the risk of general corporate claims about being carbon neutral, without back-up of how it’s being achieved and without reference to a specific framework, it makes it difficult for outsiders, including consumers, to know what actions are actually taking place. Fortunately, the Science Based Target Initiative has prepared a standard for achieving net zero. This and other industry frameworks will help companies demonstrate better transparency and authenticity going forward.

At a personal level COP26 and the climate emergency drives home how through ocollective actions and behaviours, we can keep the 1.5-degree ambition alive so that the next generation can live in a hospitable world.

To quote Greta Thunberg ‘We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint – the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform – the bigger your responsibility.’