Sunand Prasad was in Glasgow last week for COP26, and has been sharing his thoughts from the conference.

COP26 Cities Built Environment & Regions Day

Over the years it has not been easy to persuade policy and decision makers of the huge role that the built environment plays in contributing to the climate emergency. Almost everyone now can cite the 40% number – it comes from the International Energy Authority’s assessment that the built environment including infrastructure contributes 40% of the global GHG emissions. However, politicians’ eyes have tended to glaze over when construction and real estate is mentioned. But, could it be, if the built environment contributes this amount to the emissions, it can also contribute 40% of the reductions required to get to net zero?

There was a breakthrough in Paris in 2016 when COP21 included a Built Environment Day. Following focused lobbying by the World GBC, the UKGBC, and others, the COP26 UK Presidency announced, last Christmas, that there would also be a Built Environment Day at COP26. Whether a case of inclusion or dilution, that was soon changed to the Cities Built Environment & Regions Day; the built environment by itself could not fill a day, it seems. But I carp…It was a great opportunity seized by many, who were determined to show how our industry has the will, the ideas, and the skills to help the world wean itself off fossil fuels and the extractive economy. The RIBA, the Design Council, UKGBC, and some of the larger firms in the Blue Zone, but equally importantly, Architects Declare, LETI (the London Energy Transformation Initiative), and activists in the Green Zone and the Fringe were making the case. On the way to the Blue Zone, we chanced on Alasdair Dixon of Collective Works with hot-off-the press copies of the Architects Declare Practice Guide being launched that day.

The CBER Day was the big moment for the UKGBC, having targeted COP26 since last year to launch the long planned Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap. UKGBC has worked with 70 organisations and individuals, with a large steering committee, and five task groups one of which included Perkins&Will Sustainability Director, Asif Din. The Roadmap consists of a net zero trajectory, a set of policy recommendations, and stakeholder actions needed for the UK built environment to reach net zero by 2050. This will be a live document added onto with sectoral versions and ever greater detail over the coming months and years.

For the launch, we were given exactly 60 minutes at 11:30am at the admirably unostentatious UK Presidency Pavilion (or ‘Corridor’ as some wag called it) with a countdown clock on the wall. Lord Callanan, Minister for Business, Energy and Corporate Responsibility, BEIS gave a supportive response and did a bit of Q&A with me as Moderator of the event. I probed the minister, to the small extent allowable in such events, especially on retrofit, a vital issue on which the UK Government’s recent and much delayed Heat and Buildings Strategy is woefully inadequate. There was slightly better news on the other key topic of embodied carbon, as it had been announced at the COP on 9 November that the UK has joined India, Germany, and Canada in a bit of a push for low embodied carbon materials in public procurement. We then had a wider panel discussion with Jo da Silva of Arup, Mark Allan of Landsec, and Donald Breninkmejer of the Laudes Foundation, who with the IKEA Foundation has sponsored the work. Landsec have committed to decarbonising not only new buildings but their portfolio. Jo da Silva said memorably, “we cannot retrofit the existing stock one house at a time”. That means in the UK that we have to scale up to be able to transform over a million homes per year.  I make that at least 2 every minute.