December 15th 2023

COP28: We must move faster to decarbonise the built environment

COP28: We must move faster to decarbonise the built environment

As COP28 negotiations closed and a deal was agreed, it was difficult not to have mixed feelings on the UAE Consensus. While many hailed the ‘landmark’ deal to move away from fossil fuels, and it was positive to see almost 200 countries agreeing to transition away from coal, oil and gas, the fact remains that there is still no legal requirement for countries to adhere to this agreement and a multitude of loopholes remain to be addressed.

It was also extremely disappointing, yet not surprising, to see that decarbonisation poverty was not addressed in the agreement. There was nothing to state how this transition will be funded for vulnerable developing countries, who still need hundreds of billions more in finance to make the transition away from fossil fuels. This is something governments have been ignoring for years and the failure to yet again address it in this agreement does not provide confidence for a fair and just energy transition.

We have been here before with strong promises from governments and “historic” moments in climate action, only for them to be unfulfilled and excuses made years down the line. The global stocktake of the Paris Agreement portrayed this loud and clear, showing that countries around the world are still way off track to meet targets. It is the hope that the COP28 deal will change this and the required action will be taken to steer us back onto the right road, but only time will tell.

In the meantime, however, the built environment cannot stand still and wait for governments to act. We must collectively keep pushing to decarbonise our buildings as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the main sentiment following the focus on the built environment at COP28 was that the sector is moving too slow and is simply not making enough progress to reach targets.

Since 2015, emissions from the buildings sector have grown year on year at an average rate of 1%, with global growth in floor area negating much of our sector’s efficiency and decarbonisation gains. We are currently going in the wrong direction and we must progress faster to rectify this and achieve the carbon reductions needed to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

During COP28, the UKGBC released their Whole Life Carbon Roadmap Progress Report, which further served to highlight our slow progress. The UK’s building stock is lagging behind with emission reductions falling short of the 19% required to align with the net-zero pathway. As a result, the UKGBC highlighted the sheer scale of the task at hand – the built environment now needs to decarbonise almost twice as fast over the next two years to get back on track.

The report also revealed that the industry is still not taking embodied carbon seriously. Emissions in this area have reduced by just 4% and the RICS Sustainability Report 2023, also released on Built Environment Day, revealed that 43% are still not measuring embodied carbon on projects.

Built Environment Day did however reveal some positive steps in the right direction. The Buildings Breakthrough was launched by France and Morocco, with the UN Environment Programme. This aims to unite countries to accelerate the transformation of the built environment and ensure that near-zero emission buildings are the new normal by 2023. 27 countries, including the UK, have pledged their commitment. It’s hoped that this will, in part, help to strengthen international collaboration and raise awareness that all must play their part if targets are to be achieved.

Built Environment Day also saw the release of the first report discussing the progress of the commercial real estate sector in the US, the status of data availability and an explanation of the mechanisms available to reduce emissions. Globally, commercial real estate continues to contribute significantly to the emissions of the built environment as a whole and action to reduce this is urgently required. As a result, this report is welcome and one that could be replicated in other countries too.

However, if there is one clear takeaway we can draw from the past two weeks of activity at COP28 is that appetite for change exists in our industry and we are beginning to see it translate into action. The collaborative nature of the sector was demonstrated in a recent whitepaper, led by IES with contributions from key players in the industry. It focused on one solution to accelerating progress to net-zero, through IES’s concept of Sleeping Digital Twins™ – the idea that existing 3D design, energy compliance and BIM models can be utilised and evolved into dynamic digital twins to optimise building performance. Support for the concept and a whole-life performance modelling more broadly, was abundantly clear. Now, the industry must take steps to enable its widespread adoption and steer away from a compliance-focused culture towards one that designs for performance.

As the clock ticks on, we cannot afford to be complacent as an industry. AEC practitioners, facilities managers, building owners/occupants and beyond all have a vital part to play in supporting a shift in the way that the sector operates. We need to collaborate and keep  sharing examples of the great work that’s being done, to encourage others to follow suit and recognise the urgent need for progress to accelerate, quickly.