Following Built Environment Day at COP28, Don McLean reflects on the discussions, new report findings, and the urgent need for the sector to accelerate progress to net zero
The built environment is an area that represents huge untapped potential for driving change and reaching a net-zero future.
Despite this, the main sentiment following the focus on the built environment at COP28 was that the sector is simply not making enough progress to reach targets.
Globally, governments still overlook the vast potential of the industry, and COP28 was a prime opportunity to shine a light on the role it must play in driving down emissions. Unfortunately, it mostly served as a reminder of just how far we have to go.
The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) released its Whole Life Carbon Roadmap Progress Report, which made painfully clear that progress is slow. 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.
While those operating in the sector recognise the critical threat of climate change, and are broadly ready to take action, policy is urgently required to establish an action-orientated framework that accelerates progress.
Recent government U-turns on green policies demonstrate a lack of appreciation for the fact that time is running out. We must be scaling up policy, not watering it down. We have the technology and are rapidly developing the skills to tackle the issue, but there is a widening gap where clear policy should be.
The industry and governments worldwide must work hand in hand to facilitate the level of progress required but Built Environment Day did 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.
Twenty seven 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.
Appetite for change
What’s clear is that appetite for change exists in the 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 the 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 be sharing examples of best practices, to encourage others to follow suit, and recognise the urgent need for progress to accelerate, quickly.
Main image: Don McClean is founder and chief executive of IES
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