Lisa Richmond and Vincent Martinez
courtesy Architecture 2030 Lisa Richmond and Vincent Martinez

Next month, Architecture 2030 will be a part of the built environment community at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Recently, I spoke with Architecture 2030 president and COO Vincent Martinez about the significance of COP27 and how Architecture 2030 sees the role of buildings and their makers at these global climate events.

Lisa Richmond: Architecture 2030 will once again participate as an official Observer Organization at the UN Conference of the Parties climate summit this November. These annual summits bring together not just national governments, but also cities, businesses and nonprofits—“non-state actors” in UN parlance. Tell me why their participation in this global climate dialogue is important.

Vincent Martinez: At COP26 in Glasgow, some of the most aggressive leadership came from these “non-state actors,” including the industry organizations, businesses and NGOs that issued the COP26 1.5°C Communique organized by Architecture 2030. Our role is not only to urge that all national commitments include building-sector strategies and targets, but perhaps more importantly, to provide the tools and the roadmap to achieve the goals coming out of these meetings.

Architecture 2030 uses our platform at the COPs to highlight the impact the design industry has in decarbonizing and increasing the resilience of the built environment. Governments can’t meet aggressive global carbon reduction targets without the built environment, and designers have the most powerful lever to influence positive change up front in the process, making bigger gains than can be achieved downstream. We came to COP26 with the 1.5°C Communique representing firms and professional organizations responsible for designing and building a significant portion of new development. At COP27, we want to highlight the practitioners and practices that make this possible.

Coordinated, meaningful global climate action can feel like an elusive goal, but the good news is, in the building sector, we are making significant progress.

We are also seeing a significant acceleration of pace and ambition coming out of COP26. Moving forward, countries will update their reduction targets (Nationally Declared Contributions, or NDCs) every year, rather than every five years. Having the design industry committed and demonstrating what is possible is even more critical as the UN enters this new phase of climate work.

Mahmoud Mohieldin, this year’s host and the UN climate change high-level champion for Eqypt, has said COP27 must move from summits to solutions because previous events had “exhausted the English dictionaries of words of love and affection to the planet.” How well are we moving from words to action in the building sector?

Coordinated, meaningful global climate action can feel like an elusive goal, but the good news is, in the building sector, we are making significant progress. A global movement of practitioners, firms and professional associations are embracing the challenge of decarbonizing building operations. The result: while global floor area increased almost 10% between 2015 and 2020, energy intensity actually decreased by 5.7%, greenhouse gas intensity by more than 17% (see Global Alliance for Building and Construction 2021 Global Status Report). This decoupling of floor area growth from operating energy consumption and emissions actually started happening in the U.S. in 2005.

However, you can only address what you choose to see. For a long time, our industry has focused exclusively on emissions from building operations. Now our attention is on embodied emissions from building materials and construction, as well as a more holistic approach to the built environment considering planning, infrastructure and landscapes. Bringing this bigger picture into focus for the design community will provide new challenges, but also new solutions as we work to achieve the 50% x 2030 emissions reduction targets.

Holding COP27 in Egypt underscores issues of climate justice, the outsize GHG emissions of the Global North, and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries of the Global South. Why should architects practicing in North America care about these disparities, and what can they do?

Between 2022 and 2050, global population is projected to increase by 1.88 billion people, most of that growth in the Global South. To meet the equitable development needs of that growth will necessitate billions of square meters of new construction and infrastructure. All this development will be undertaken simultaneously with increasing climate change impacts and the need for adaptive buildings and infrastructure. In other words, the Global South is where we will see both increased attention and tremendous opportunity.

COP27 is being hosted and led by these high-growth regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They are experiencing the brunt of climate change, but they also offer fresh roadmaps to a more sustainable future.

We in North America have a lot to learn from design thinkers living and working in Africa, Asia, and South America. How can we relearn site-sensitive design practices that have been around for millenia? What can we learn from indigenous, culturally relevant development that avoids the carbon pitfalls of cities in North America and Europe? Which architecture, landscape, and land use principles can simultaneously support carbon mitigation, human development and well-being, ecological health and restoration, adaptation and resilience, food security, and local economies and livelihoods? These are the design principles we have been collecting and disseminating through the 2030 Palette and what we plan to highlight in an official COP27 side event with partners ASHRAE and the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists.

This year’s COP has a strong emphasis on adaptation and resilience. How do strategies within the 2030 Palette simultaneously address mitigation and the need to adapt to a hotter, more volatile climate?

In a rapidly changing climate, adaptation is increasingly important, and at the same time it is critical that we continue to reduce emissions to stay within our carbon budget. Meeting human development goals for growing populations, particularly in Africa and Asia, and preparing for increasing impacts of climate change will require us to do both things at once: dramatically reduce the carbon we are emitting in the built environment while ensuring it can withstand the changes that are already baked into the climate.

Many of the mitigation strategies featured in the 2030 Palette—passive systems, low energy use, renewable energy—are also adaptation strategies, and many adaptation strategies that leverage nature based solutions—vegetative cooling, constructed wetlands—are also mitigation strategies since they utilize low carbon materials and offer substantial carbon sequestration potential. An integrated design approach to all scales of the built environment produces holistic solutions that address both at the same time.

This article is part of the October 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.

Read more: Sustainable design strategies that work. | Why sustainable practices must extend beyond the building and into the exterior built environment. | Are we moving towards zero-waste offices?