A glass half full or half empty: Will COP26 define our future?

01 November, 2021

With the 2021 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP26) now underway here in the UK, we sat down with our director of sustainability and energy, Dr Jose Hernandez, to hear his thoughts on the significance of the event for the construction industry and the way that we as a business must adapt.

We can be sure that the outcomes of COP26 will significantly define our future. However, the reason why we cannot look to the conference as the only measure of our global commitment to fighting climate change is because we as individuals, businesses and societies must also be accountable for our actions. There have been major developments since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 that have given us a more than clear picture of our situation.

Only a couple of months ago the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a stark warning to the world. The panel revealed several key findings, including:

  1. Climate change is undoubtedly man-made
  2. The warming is unprecedented
  3. Warming will continue, but it can be stopped by a shift to net zero emissions
  4. Weather and climates have already changed and will continue to change
  5. The impact of climate change will be worse if global warming isn’t limited to 1.5 degree Celsius.

This all makes for bleak reading, unless we focus on the reasons to be optimistic within the data. The scientific fact that climate change can be slowed down and its impacts mitigated is a reason for us all to rally behind the belief that COP26 will define our future for the right reasons. As we have seen in recent times, it often appears that we feel our freedom and liberties are curtailed when changes are required, instead of seeing the opportunity presented to us to make amends and achieve transformational changes to deliver a better world.

With the event being held in Glasgow, it can seem like discussions around sustainability have been more frequent and more serious in the UK. This being said, as a global matter the actual location of the event itself is fairly irrelevant. The critical importance comes from the coordination and preparation role that the UK has in this position to facilitate dialogue and commitment and to give COP26 the best chance of becoming the success that is required on a global level.

The built environment is a significant contributor to emissions, so it is our professional and moral responsibility to do everything we can to both mitigate and adapt so that we can hopefully meet the specific route-maps that will, all being well, emanate from COP26.

Truly embedding sustainability practices and targets from the outset of any project, plus maintaining true collaboration across the sector, is vital. The IPCC has made it very clear that every tonne of CO2 adds to global warming, so every tonne makes a difference. Therefore, we must remind our clients, supply chains and even children not to think they are not important enough for their contribution to count.

This is something Pick Everard has been practicing for some time now having become the UK’s first firm to sign up to every discipline under the Construction Declares Climate and Biodiversity Emergency in 2020. More recently, we signed up to the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) 2030 Climate Challenge and have increased net zero design and practice principles into all the multi-disciplinary design and management services we provide. Being versatile and exploring how different disciplines are adapting can only breed new ideas for multi-service consultancies like ourselves.

I see a variety of ways we can immediately make construction more sustainable, such as:

  • Making radical changes to building regulations and planning
  • Helping clients understand the importance of whole-life costs beyond just those economic and making this a key decision factor
  • Demonstrating the need for a new building instead of a refurbishment
  • Continuing to raise the importance of embodied carbon, even more so that the electricity grid continues to decarbonise
  • Embracing hybrid working where possible, reducing commuting and business journeys
  • Upskilling ourselves and our clients so that we have greater access to low or zero carbon options
  • Helping our staff and our supply chain to reduce their carbon footprint
  • And putting a price to carbon so that there are greater consequences for inaction.

Ultimately, COP26 will provide an indication on how the world’s leaders plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and will likely drive a top-down approach. It is our responsibility to contribute to the bottom-up approach, encouraging every professional to find innovative solutions, increasing collaboration and challenging the status quo that has led to where we are today.

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