In the Feb. 26 release of the interim United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report, Secretary-General António Guterres boldly declared 2021 the “make or break year” for the planet. The report found the 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) emissions-reduction pledges of 75 countries to be wholly inadequate. Global greenhouse gas emissions would only be cut by about 1%, far short of the 65% cut in carbon emissions from January 2020 levels needed by 2030 to have a 67% probability of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The science and global carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C are clear. The remaining budget at the beginning of 2020 was 340 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which means that if the world achieves a 65% reduction of CO₂ emissions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2040, we can expect warming to be kept at about 1.5°C.
The time to act is now. The most significant climate event since the 2015 Paris Agreement—when all parties agreed to pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C—will take place this November. At the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), countries must submit their updated 2030 NDCs. To date, only the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Denmark have committed to significant 2030 emissions reductions from 1990 levels: 55%, 68%, and 70%, respectively. Much, much more is needed to reach the critical goals.
Fortunately, the U.S. is now poised to lead in this endeavor, as COP26 will be the first U.N. climate change conference the country will attend since rejoining the Paris Agreement. All eyes will be on its updated NDC pledge. This figure should be announced before April 22, when President Biden will host world leaders for a summit “aimed at raising climate ambition.” The country must persuade other nations to follow suit by setting a minimum 2030 NDC of a 65% emissions reduction from 2005 levels, in line with the 1.5°C carbon budget. Additionally, the U.S. must work with the EU, China, and India to be similarly ambitious, as these four entities are responsible for 58% of global CO₂ emissions.
The U.S. can lead other nations with confidence and the knowledge that a 65% reduction is achievable. Why? U.S. carbon emissions today are already down 23% from 2005 levels. The building sector, the country’s largest energy consumer, continues to reduce its emissions and is now 30% below 2005 levels, ahead of the U.S. Paris Agreement’s NDC of a 26% to 28% reduction by 2025. The Biden pledge of a clean electricity grid by 2035 should further cut emissions from the building sector, surpassing the targeted 65% reduction, and also drive emissions down in other sectors.
Prior to COP26, the world’s largest professional planning, design, and construction organizations will meet to demonstrate the significant actions our industry is taking to work within the 1.5°C carbon budget. With urban environments responsible for more than 75% of all annual global emissions—predominantly generated by day-to-day building and infrastructure operations, the manufacture of materials, and construction—we can show what is practically possible and embolden all governments to do the same.
This story has been updated since first publication.
Learning how to design, plan, and build for a 1.5°C carbon budget and world is critical. To see the recorded sessions from the Architecture 2030 Teach-In that occurred in September 2020, visit carbon-positive.org.