On the eve of COP26, the RIBA's Built for the Environment report calls on the government to step up the fight against climate change – but we need your help, says Phoebe MacDonald
In a few weeks’ time, global leaders, climate change experts and activists will descend on Glasgow for COP26. This meeting marks a critical juncture for humanity. The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that inaction to date means that unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, then limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.
And the built environment has a huge role to play because as a sector we’re responsible for 38 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions.
Our latest report, Built for the Environment, produced in partnership with Architects Declare, sets out bold recommendations for governments on how their leadership, legislation and regulation can help the built environment sector reach net zero. To successfully decarbonise the sector, we must transform the way buildings are designed and constructed.
Current building codes and regulations focus on almost exclusively on the energy use of new buildings, but do not regulate actual energy use. We know that buildings sometimes do not perform as predicted during the design process, so we must regulate their in-use operational energy performance.
The most effective way to avoid embodied carbon emissions is to refurbish, retrofit and extend the lives of existing buildings
Embodied carbon – the carbon emissions attributable to materials and products used in the construction and maintenance of buildings – remains almost entirely unregulated. This remains a huge barrier to reaching net zero.
Retrofitting must also be prioritised. We won’t reach our climate action goals by building from scratch; we must reuse our existing building stock. It’s quite clear that the most effective way to avoid embodied carbon emissions is to refurbish, retrofit and extend the lives of existing buildings. And governments can help to encourage this by collecting, storing and sharing information on derelict and vacant buildings.
Governments need to take a holistic view of decarbonising construction and fundamentally ensure their actions reflect the severity of the situation we face. Therefore, alongside effective regulations, we also require urgent changes to policies affecting planning and permitting systems, public procurement, grants and incentives, and supporting infrastructure. For example, procurement processes should better consider social value; contracts should be awarded on criteria such as health and wellbeing, access and inclusion, social sustainability, innovation, and resilience – not the lowest cost.
Of course, the industry also has a role to play. Sharing information, breaking down silos, adapting behaviours and changing our approach to designing and building are key to success. I urge everyone who engages with the built environment to read, download and endorse Built for the Environment. By working together, and showing governments we’re speaking with one voice, we can make a real difference.
Phoebe MacDonald is RIBA senior policy and public affairs advisor.