As negotiations concluded in Glasgow, views on the success of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) varied enormously, its beauty in the eyes of the beholders. Some breakthroughs occurred, including agreements on methane, deforestation, and global carbon trading, as well as the formal recognition of the role of fossil fuels in the climate crisis. However, most observers agree that COP26 fell well short of the actions necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C. More is needed and quickly.
That said, COP26 magnified global awareness and attracted multitudes of climate stakeholders from every walk of life. The Glasgow summit made climate change the top story in the media for two solid weeks in November. Its participants included thousands of public- and private-sector organizations, dozens of which represented cities and the building, design, and planning community. This diverse cross section of people and groups left Glasgow with new and strengthened coalitions.
For the building sector, COP26 revealed a fundamentally changed landscape. Architects and engineers have the know-how to zero out operational emissions. In developed nations, like the U.S., the latest code standards mandate a level of performance that puts zero carbon well within reach. The building products and construction industry is redirecting billions to innovations in order to zero-out embodied emissions, focusing first on the largest emitters—concrete and steel—and the materials that sequester carbon. Both represent new value propositions for our sector.
The financial sector was also well represented at COP26. From central banks to private-sector investors, it delivered a strong message with a united voice. Globally, dollars are moving to win-win opportunities with both climate and financial benefits. Carbon accounting must be given equal footing with finances in business decisions. Design teams are uniquely positioned to facilitate this transition with reliable estimates of whole life carbon assessment.
Importantly, local governments had a strong presence. Mayors from Austin, Texas, to Izmir, Turkey, delivered compelling and consistent messages. Cities cannot approach climate change as a partisan issue. For cities around the globe, 2021 realities have tipped the scale. Delay will cost cities far more than action will. Designers can serve as trusted experts and as activists with the skills and temperament to embrace diverse interests and forge beneficial solutions.
Glasgow categorically validated Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué and the AIA Strategic Plan. To stay within the 1.5°C warming cap, architects are ethically bound to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector consistent with the Communiqué targets. Protecting public health, safety, and welfare means nothing without climate action. The inseparability and urgency of the Strategic Plan’s twin priorities—climate action and social equity—were evident everywhere at COP26. By and large, nations most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change are the least responsible for its causes. Climate action requires climate justice.
Glasgow changed the global trajectory of climate action. It was a sobering but necessary check-in on the momentous Paris Summit of six years ago. Climate action must be scaled far more rapidly. Continual evaluation of our collective progress and commitments is vital. I believe Architecture 2030, AIA, and every major built-environment association around the world left COP26 more prepared and dedicated to support every designer on every project. Now the real work begins.
This article appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of ARCHITECT.