COP26 – Unanswered questions

COP26 – Unanswered questions

COP26 – Unanswered questions

Posted: 19/01/2022

Has COP26 brought the clarity needed for decarbonisation in the built environment?

The commitments made at COP26 lay the groundwork to dramatically change our relationship with carbon. These changes will have a big effect on how we build, how we design and how we power and heat buildings.

In the past, we’ve called for greater clarity on how we’re going to reach net-zero in the built environment. In our previous thought piece, we discussed the questions that need answering if the effort to reach carbon net-zero is to be successful.

The question to ask now is: is the way forward for the built environment any clearer after COP26?

The uncertainty of net-zero

The built environment is responsible for 40% of global emissions, so a lot is riding on businesses like us.

As an industry, we’re currently in a state of flux. There’s a clear picture of where we need to be but only a very fuzzy outline of how we get there. More specifically, it’s clear that we need to move away from the old ways, but the outline of what road takes us to net-zero is difficult to make out. We know there are some landmarks to aim for but not much else.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, much is being made of the importance of heat pumps and alternative means of building heating, but roadblocks exist to their wide-scale rollout. The COP was a gilt-edged opportunity to clear away some of the uncertainty around the ‘how’ we get to net-zero.

But did it achieve that?

Cities, regions and the built environment day at COP26

People were hungry for big statements at COP26, and while there were obvious disappointments (i.e. the watered-down version of the phase-out of coal), there were reasons for optimism too. For example, the commitment to end deforestation by 2030 was seen as a welcome commitment by pretty much everyone in the international community.

But what about the built environment? After all, the conference dedicated an entire day to cities, regions and the built environment, so expectations were high.

While there were good conversations had and many important points raised, there was no concrete answer to many of the questions hanging over the industry. For example, the UK and 4 other developed nations committed to supporting new markets for low-carbon steel and concrete, a move that could go a long way in decarbonising the supply chain feeding our industry.

No news is bad news

Small wins aside, the dearth of guidance and policy on our current carbon targets is concerning. The UK Heat and Buildings Strategy outlines a push for the rollout of heat pumps to replace the gas boiler. Elsewhere, the possibility of using local heat networks powered by renewables is offered up as an alternative.

While indeed there is great promise in these technologies, there are still unanswered questions that are affecting the industry’s ability to make the best use of them. This is a topic we discussed at length in our previous blog on decarbonising heating.

We need a better plan

Ultimately, there needs to be a plan in place for getting homes and electrical installations ready for widescale roll out of heat pumps. Without that infrastructure in place, heat pumps can’t function as the viable alternative they’re touted as being.

What’s more, there are monetary concerns about the viability of retrofitting certain buildings ready for heat pump heating solutions. Reviewing the life cycle costs of buildings, to include the upgrades necessary to decarbonise, will become essential to the decision making process towards net zero.

As Julie Hirigoyen of the UK Green Building Council said in her retrospective on the COP, “ambitious government announcements related to directly fulfilling the UK’s commitments at home through the built environment, were notably absent.”

The UK Green Building council weighs in

The aforementioned Julie Hirigoyen presented a thoughtful piece on what was missing from the COP’s cities, regions and built environment day. As she rightly says, major policy interventions are needed to fulfil our existing UK commitments, with the country on track to badly miss the 2050 net-zero target with the suite of policies currently in place.

The UKGBC is now calling for a focus on embodied carbon and the enforcement of rules to require the measurement and disclosure of this. Only through transparency on how much carbon is being used can we start to bring it in line with the targets the government is setting.

Importantly, they’re also calling for a national home retrofit strategy by 2022. Such a retrofit would make our homes more energy-efficient, warm, and cheaper to heat, all whilst enabling us to phase out fossil fuel heating through low carbon options like heat pumps.

We couldn’t agree more. The lack of guidance in this arena is a glaring hole in the government’s strategy and we can’t help but feel there have been several missed opportunities to put a cogent plan forward.

The industry steps in

As discouraging as government efforts have been, there have been admirable efforts from the industry to start filling in the blanks. The Whole Life Carbon Roadmap from the UK Green Building Council seeks to drive the UK towards the 2050 target by setting out a common vision with industry-wide actions and policy recommendations.

Covering four bases, it sets out

  • A pathway to Net Zero for the UK Built Environment – Designed for stakeholders from all corners of the built environment, it details the necessary technological shifts, policies and industry actions that can help deliver decarbonisation.
  • A technical Report – This provides detail on the project structure, the process for data collection, the key features of the calculation methodology and concludes with a description of the net-zero scenario definition and results.
  • A summary for Policy-Makers – Aimed at central government, local authorities, and anyone interested in built environment policies. The Summary provides an overview of the relevant Roadmap findings and policy recommendations for the central government to deliver a net-zero built environment by 2050.
  • Stakeholder Action Plans – Sets out specific recommended actions for 14 key industry stakeholders, enabling them to play their part in achieving the Roadmap’s goals.

Is the wider industry acting?

On a global scale, the industry is reacting to the need to decrease carbon emissions. The World Building Council launched the net-zero carbon buildings commitment in 2018. Since then it has gathered an impressive portfolio of signatories, including 44 new ones at the COP.

The radical campaign commits signatories to decarbonise buildings under their control by 2030. With a marquee list of UK signatories, the campaign will provide a stimulus for lots of industry conversation on how we can get to net-zero.

Similar encouragement can be found from the Building to Cop campaign, where $1.2 trillion of real estate is signed up to the race for net-zero and the 1.5-degree target.

The real test will come in getting the wider industry to act when there is a lack of guidance coming in from the government.

The future is uncertain

When it comes to the built environment, the COP didn’t deliver the certainty we were hoping for. The government are still dragging their heels and not answering the important questions. There is a real gap in policy that is hurting our efforts and if it isn’t taken control of soon, we’re unlikely to reach the carbon requirements needed to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees.

While certain parts of the industry are doing a great job in driving the conversation forward and setting its own requirements, more work will need to be done to deliver a built environment that is net-zero and future-proof.

If you’re looking for support with your own decarbonisation efforts, give GLD Consulting a call and we’ll help you make the changes needed.