In the lead into COP26, I virtually attended the Built Environment Summit, hosted by RIBA in partnership with Architects Declare. The two-day event consisted of expert talks, conversations and debates aiming to spotlight the role the built environment plays within the climate emergency.
Confronted by the hard truth that 38% of all global greenhouse gases is currently attributed to the built environment, the speakers called upon professionals to take the time to educate themselves and be part of the solution, rather than passive bystanders contributing to the problem.
The statistics on the carbon emission of cement alone are a clear indication of the existential threat facing our sector. Julian Allwood, the Lead Author of the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), demonstrated that if we are to keep to the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming by 1.5°C (or even 2°C), this would render using any cement in construction illegal in 28 years’ time. As currently there is no known means to make cement without emission. This shows how radically the industry will need to rethink and adapt current practice in its transition to Net Zero. It also demonstrated how there will clearly need to be a prioritisation of re-use, retrofit and adaptation of existing buildings and material resource over developing new buildings.
Whilst the window of opportunity for meaningful change is small, the summit shed hope by showcasing recommendations and emerging innovations that demonstrate a shift from a culture of consumerism, extraction and waste, towards one that is more sustainable, and at its best, regenerative. The general message was one of optimism, and that this is just the beginning of a revolution in the way we design and construct buildings, and the technologies we use to power and operate them.
Maria Smith also presented the key recommendations from the Built Environment report, which bring together a cross-section of research and publications, and has featured as part of the COP26. Let us hope that the report attracts the governmental support and legislation needed to accelerate the systemic change required for our carbon-hungry sector to stay within the 1.5°C carbon budget. Read full report here.
There were many parallels drawn between the pandemic and the climate crisis during the summit, and how, in the face of a global crisis, we were able to rethink the way we function as a society overnight. At the start of Covid, Levitt Bernstein chose to work from home a week before we were asked to do so by the government. Again, it is time to act first, to each use our professional judgement to design our buildings efficiently. It is our responsibility to steer clients towards best practice targets, such as those recommended by LETI and the RIBA 2030 challenge, rather than accept any brief incompatible with the future of our planet.
Lawyer and climate activist Farhana Yamin provided the closing reminder that the progress of the sector rests in our hands. In her words: ‘It is not the time to be neutral, but it is time to be active’. Whatever happens after COP26, we can no longer afford to wait for regulations to catch up.