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COP26 reflections

RIBA Chief Executive Alan Vallance reflects on what was achieved at COP26

18 November 2021

I arrived home from the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow last Friday, and I have to admit, after an extremely hectic few days, I was glad to return to some sort of normality. On a global level, the two-week summit saw leaders and negotiators come together to discuss and agree how we’re going to limit global warming to 1.5°C. On another level, it enabled industries like ours to come together to discuss and demonstrate how we can collaborate to urgently decarbonise by sector.

The BIG agreements…

The mantra for COP26 was “keep 1.5°C alive” and the Glasgow Climate Pact – that was agreed around 24 hours after negotiations were due to conclude – leaves the door ajar. In theory, it means we can achieve that target, but without meaningful action, the door won’t remain open for long.

The final Pact calls on governments to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 targets by the end of next year – a welcome move. For the built environment this means urging countries to include building energy codes as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – and, for that small minority of countries that already have them – ensuring figures align with net zero and science-based targets. While the Pact itself is welcome and somewhat encouraging, it’s the subsequent action that really matters.

In terms of other ‘deals’, Prime Minister Boris Johnson went into the summit with ambitions to secure agreements on “coal, cash, cars and trees” – and he reached deals on all four.

Coal

On Thursday 4 November, a coalition of over 190 countries and organisations agreed to phase out coal power and end support for new coal power plants. Countries including Canada, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine and Vietnam will all phase out their use of coal for electricity generation over the coming years. But it didn't go unnoticed that some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent economies including Australia, China, India and the US were missing from the deal.

The importance of “the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” was also included in the Glasgow Climate Pact for the first time. Despite the weakening of language, this is a step in the right direction.

Cash

On day three, former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney made some progress on securing vital climate finance by persuading 450 organisations controlling 130 trillion dollars (or around 40% of global private assets) to shift finances to fund activities that support the drive to net zero.

Cars

In terms of cars, 24 countries (including the UK who had already announced that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030) and several leading manufacturers including Ford, Volvo and Mercedes committed to ending fossil fuel engines by 2040 or earlier – a critical step. But the US, China and Germany disappointingly declined to sign-up.

Trees

One of the first agreements was on the second day of negotiations. Over 130 countries pledged to halt deforestation by 2030, preventing loss and degradation so that forests can continue thrive as the carbon sinks our planet desperately needs.

It’s fair to say we saw quite a few pledges, commitments and agreements, but ultimately, they were all words on paper and the devil will be in the detail. How and when will countries fulfil these promises? It’s what happens next that really matters.

RIBA at COP26…

We had a really busy couple of weeks, from private meetings with Ministers to globally streamed panel discussions, we certainly made the most of our time – and used each opportunity to demonstrate the value and capabilities of our sector to lead the decarbonisation of the built environment.

On Tuesday 2 November, we held our first event in the Blue Zone Buildings Pavilion with Andrew Forth, our Director of Policy and Public Affairs, who presented our Built for the Environment report alongside representatives from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, World Green Building Council and World Business Council for Sustainable Development. You can catch up here.

On Monday 8 November, when adaptation and loss was the theme of the day, we met with the Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Nadine Dorries, to discuss how we can protect and futureproof our cultural assets. We also discussed how the RIBA is embedding sustainability into our awards programme, how the built environment can better make use of technology to tackle the climate crisis, and how we are driving change to make architecture more inclusive. It was a timely and constructive meeting.

A personal highlight for me was joining Architecture2030, and the American and Australian Institutes of Architects at an official UNFCCC side event which was broadcast to a global audience. It was great to hear from each of the global representatives about the steps their members and networks are taking to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and reassuring to hear so many acknowledge the critical role of architects, who have the skills needed to lead the built environment in this fight.

In addition to our Glasgow-based events, we also worked with the UKGBC to deliver the COP26 Virtual Pavilion - Build Better Now – a programme of online panel discussions and events exploring the key themes of the summit. From Mina Hasman discussing how we can empower young people to be the climate-aware future built environment professionals; to Gary Clark talking about the vital integration of planning and sustainability; to Maria Smith stressing the importance of designing a green and resilient future that enhances nature and wellbeing, several RIBA representatives helped to shape the conversation.

Last but certainly not least, on Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day, we also held our first in-person networking event in the Gulf after 18 months with local RIBA members and stakeholders inside the UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. It was a monumental event, which celebrated the 2021 Stirling Prize shortlist, and prompted discussions about the power of architecture to drive meaningful change.

What next?

COP might be over for another year, but that doesn’t mean we can forget about the climate crisis. If the summit taught me anything, it’s that we cannot afford to rely on political intervention alone. While regulations and targets are of course important, as industries we must take responsibility by scaling and speeding up our response to this fight. Architects are critical to the urgent decarbonisation of the built environment – by using our 2030 Climate Challenge targets – we can help to dramatically reduce global carbon emissions.

During the summit we posted live updates over on our blog – catch up here. up on our daily blog and watch all our events.

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