Clive Docwra is managing director of property and construction consultancy McBains
On 6 December, the construction and built environment sector will be at the forefront of COP28 when the theme for the day will be ‘Multilevel Action, Urbanisation and Built Environment and Transport’. With the COP28 presidency calling on countries to commit to both national adaptation plans (NAPs) and nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – in short, climate-action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts – what might COP28 hold for the construction sector?
Out of 196 countries that have submitted NDCs, 158 mention buildings. This is an encouraging start, given that buildings are responsible for 37 per cent of energy-related carbon emissions and 34 per cent of final energy use, as well as a large share of extracted materials.
Transforming buildings will be essential in decarbonisation efforts – especially given the fact that the recent Global Stocktake, the first detailed assessment of global progress against the Paris Agreement, showed we are set to miss the 1.5C temperature goal set in 2015. The built environment sector’s potential for transformational change is underlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says: “Building sector mitigation policies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 90 per cent, and lift up to 2.8 billion people out of energy poverty. The sector is also key for our economy: it is responsible for 7 per cent of global employment or more than 200 million jobs, accounting for 11-13 per cent of global GDP.”
“Resilience and adaptation will be key topics, with a focus on how to design, build, maintain and occupy buildings so they can work in a future of climate-change impacts”
As the IPCC also points out, green buildings represent an enormous low-carbon investment opportunity in emerging markets of $24.7tn (£19.6tn) by 2030. So far, 25 countries including the UK have also signed up for the Buildings Breakthrough Target. This target calls for net-zero emissions and resilient buildings to be the new normal by 2030. COP28 should see more countries commit and rise to the challenge. It is also expected that the area of embodied carbon will be explored.
Biodiversity is also likely to be an important topic as the built environment sector reevaluates how it can protect and restore nature. Understandably, resilience and adaptation will also be key topics, with a focus on how to design, build, maintain and occupy buildings so they can work in a future of climate-change impacts.
A long way to go
However, while this may all sound encouraging, there is still a long way to go. An analysis published this year by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) assessed the climate-related targets and performance of a number of companies across building and construction-related sectors and described the results as “particularly alarming”, with 44 per cent of the companies assessed having no publicly disclosed targets to curb emissions at all. Of the companies deemed by the WBA to have significant property development or construction activities, not even one-fifth had a net-zero target.
Even the few leaders identified in the space did not have a roadmap covering how they would deliver zero-carbon-ready buildings by their target year. More than half (54 per cent) were revealed to not have a climate transition plan either.
We need every business within the sector to amplify their efforts to drive the transition to more efficient buildings and eco-friendly resources and materials. This includes stepping up the pace to address sustainability and achieve net zero. We need to increase the drive for energy-efficient designs like green urban spaces, solar-integrated rooftops, rain harvesting, biodiversity roofs, and more.
We also need to prioritise retrofitting – new buildings may be more energy efficient, but 80 per cent of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been built, so we need to prioritise upgrading those we already have. Some government support would not go amiss here, given the scale of the challenge.
In addition, as the Chartered Institute of Building has suggested, a carbon budget could be allocated to development projects – just as they come with a financial budget – that is scrutinised at each stage of the project. Such a move would mean consideration of carbon impact in decision-making and prevent opportunities from being missed.
Just as much as we need these solutions, green building policies and regulations will also be vital in ensuring we are working towards a better future. Robust regulations would encourage the use of sustainable materials and address carbon emissions. This would not only help the environment but lead to better living conditions and reduced energy costs for residents.
COP28 comes at a crucial time. As the Global Stocktake made clear, time is running out to deliver a sustainable future. Change is starting to happen, but let’s hope COP28 sees the message get through to more of the construction sector.