The biggest international conference on climate change ever staged takes place in Glasgow next month and there is a great deal riding on it. The environmental situation has never been more critical nor the forecasts more dire. Words are no longer enough – it’s time for action, says Simon Wyatt 


In just over two weeks’ time, the UK is set to host the biggest international conference on climate change in history. When COP26 lands in Glasgow on 31 October, the eyes of the world will rest firmly on this country and our progress towards net zero carbon. 

This will be particularly evident on 11 November, when the conference holds its first ever Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day, bringing together construction industry professionals from across the globe to discuss how we can best achieve our net zero carbon ambitions by 2050.

Simon Wyatt, Sustainability Partner at Cundall

Simon Wyatt is sustainability partner at Cundall

The UK is considered to be among the world leaders in sustainable design, technology and even policy, because we have already committed to being net zero carbon by 2050 following a 1.5ºC pathway. However, the reality is that while we have the commitment, we do not yet have the legislature or policy to support it.

At times this makes progress towards net zero carbon painfully slow, but even without legislature guiding the way, the built environment can do much more than we currently are doing to achieve net zero.

We already have the knowledge and technology to get us there, but there is still not enough drive or urgency within the built environment to achieve our goals

Over the course of this year, I have written for Building’s Countdown to COP26 series about why the built environment needs to take the lead and drive the whole of the UK toward its net zero future. We already have the knowledge and technology to get us there, but there is still not enough drive or urgency within the built environment to achieve our goals. Words alone simply won’t get us there.

Everything we are seeing from the government in terms of commitments and targets for net zero is great but, without hard-rooted policy and legislation coming through to drive the entire industry from the bottom, it is meaningless. 

>> Also read: Countdown to COP26: a good start but still a long way to go

The focus of COP26 will be for national governments to review and refine their commitments from the current 3.3ºC pathway down well below the 2ºC pathway of the Paris Agreement, and ideally as close to 1.5ºC as possible.

It is great that for the first time at COP there will be a day dedicated to the built environment, where the industry can come together and share our commitments and best practice examples. However, while I think it is unlikely there will be any immediate industry-changing outcomes, I do think the commitments might start to focus policymakers’ minds and hopefully they will start by legislating the upfront embodied carbon.

What we really need is a commitment to 1.5ºC pathways from every single world leader in attendance, because that will in turn drive action from the built environment and other sectors in all regions

Nevertheless, COP26 is an excellent opportunity for everyone in the built environment to re-examine targets and look at what they can do at an industry level to go even further. What we really need is a commitment to 1.5ºC pathways from every single world leader in attendance, because that will in turn drive action from the built environment and other sectors in all regions.

Since the UK has already made this commitment and aligned its targets with the 1.5ºC pathway, this is something we can influence on an international level.

Now is the time for real and tangible action. Over the past year we have seen the industry move at a greater speed and unity with a vast array of developers, consultants and contractors signing up to aspirational targets and commitments. The early pioneering projects have proven that net zero carbon is possible – but is also difficult, and we are already seeing people trying to gamify and create shortcuts which are likely to undermine the progress.

An example of this manipulation, which is essentially greenwashing, is a recent project I was involved in working on a major redevelopment project using a well defined net zero carbon framework. After several workshops detailing the steps to achieving net zero carbon in construction and operation, we were shocked when the response from the client’s advisors was to request that we modify the way we were calculating embodied carbon and operational energy to meet the targets on paper while still designing and building as they have done for the past two decades. We have repeatedly seen this inertia and unwillingness to consider new and alternative approaches but,  considering the client in question has made clear public net zero carbon commitments, it was very disappointing.

Another concerning example of developers cutting corners to artificially inflate their green credentials is a recent project where the timber scheme was not meeting the upfront embodied carbon targets. Instead of looking at efficiencies, the client advisors suggested increasing quantities of timber over what was required structurally so that, when sequestration was considered, overall carbon emissions were lower. This is obviously resource inefficient, wasteful and against the spirit of net zero carbon, but this misuse of timber’s embodied carbon credentials is something that unfortunately we are starting to observe more often.

>> Also read: Countdown to COP26: Getting back to nature should be the first consideration of sustainable design

One of the greatest achievements over the past two years has been the setting of carbon and energy intensity targets which challenge and push design teams to the limit of what is possible. However, we are already starting to see people refer to them as the standard rather than as the general guidance that they are intended to be.

This means that design teams are not necessarily aiming to achieve the lowest embodied carbon possible. Rather they are looking for tick-box compliance anyway they can, including creative accounting. 

Some buildings should be able to meet these targets, others will really struggle, but all buildings should aspire to go as low as possible and be looking to verify real performance in use. The available design tools and calculation are only meant as aids to help achieve these performance targets. 

Another of the biggest challenges facing the built environment is around scope 3 tenant emissions. Institutional investors have signed up to eliminating scope 3 emissions as a way of getting to net zero carbon, but design teams have been struggling to comprehend these emissions as they are out of their control. 

Luckily the UKGBC and NABERS UK schemes break the whole building energy intensity targets down into base building and occupier emissions, and this means that design teams can focus on the areas that they influence. However, it has also given rise to a mentality in the industry of focusing on design calculations rather then in-use operational performance. As a result, some designers and developers are marketing buildings as “net zero carbon enabled” once the base building design calculations meet the base build intensity targets, but this gives little thought to the occupier, usage and real operation of the building.

When LETI and the RIBA set their embodied carbon targets, they were very much aspirational rather than based on what was achievable. Design teams have been endeavouring to achieve or get close to these targets but, given current technologies and processes, it is questionable whether some buildings can achieve them. 

This is fine as it gives rise to two pathways – the idea of retrofit first and reusing what we have, and the idea that we need to work closely with our supply chains to decarbonise them so they can meet these targets. But again, we have seen creative accounting and calculations making the targets appear achievable now. This ultimately undermines these two key principles and puts progress in jeopardy.

One of the sectors where we have seen the greatest interest in net zero carbon is commercial offices, which is surprising but welcome. Thanks to the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) and British Council for Offices (BCO), the newly launched NABERS UK seems to have penetrated the market with most of the leading developers now working on Design for Performance (DfP) pioneering schemes. 

Consistency of approach and methodology across the industry is important

The early results are promising, and most schemes are looking to achieve 4.5 to 5.5-star NABERS ratings, a feat which took the Australian market almost a decade to get to. The forerunning projects are currently going through the independent design review process, which is throwing up considerations and suggesting performances will not be as good as initially expected. However, we still expect that these forerunners should be around the 3.5 to 5-star levels and await their results with bated breath.

Consistency of approach and methodology across the industry is important. Using different Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) software gives similar (but often different) results, and we recommend that developers maintain consistent platforms. However, even when using the same software, we see significant inconsistency depending on the competency and experience of the assessors. 

Embodied carbon and whole-life carbon are relatively new fields in the UK, and although many people have used LCA software, there are probably only a handful of competent users in the UK. We find that less competent users generally report lower (or better) numbers, more out of naiveté then deliberate intent. 

Therefore, it is important not only to benchmark high level targets but to break down the targets into the individual elements such as structure, sub-structure, facade, finishes and MEP. This will enable assessors to quickly and easily highlight venues that are out of range. 

The key focus of the industry needs to be consistency and transparency

Similarly, for operational energy the more experienced operatives typically report higher (or worse) numbers. We often see assessments excluding out-of-hours energy usage, trace heating, auxiliary landlord ventilation and cooling systems, parasitic loads and systems, which can all add up and make the difference between a star rating.

The key focus of the industry needs to be consistency and transparency. The Whole Life Carbon Network is undertaking a consistency project to align the RICS, IStructE, the RIBA, CIBSE, LETI and central government. The UKGBC is undertaking a review of net zero carbon certification which, if it is simple and concise, will drive this consistency and would be welcomed by the industry.

The final piece in this jigsaw puzzle is legislation. The government select committee, which is currently reviewing the role of the built environment including embodied carbon in response to their net zero carbon commitments, needs to act decisively and swiftly to put a series of requirements in place within the next year. These should include:

  • Mandatory upfront and whole-life embodied carbon assessments for all new and major refurbishment work.
  • Mandatory public disclosure of operational energy performance of all buildings, with sliding minimum targets to 2050.
  • A ban on new gas boilers for new and existing buildings.
  • Subsidised insulation and energy efficiency works for existing homes and public buildings.
  • Levelling up VAT on new and existing buildings (because currently it is cheaper to knock down and rebuild). Some even argue that they should be switched to have no VAT on retrofit and full VAT on new-builds. Parity would be a long overdue start.

While I have dedicated a lot of time here to talking about what the industry needs to achieve, it is also worth acknowledging how far we have come in only a couple of years. We now have clear commitments and buy-in at all levels, industry standards and definitions that are starting to align, best practice examples, tools and guidance, and most importantly, the will of the industry to change. 

Hopefully COP26 will be the springboard for real and meaningful action to meet our commitments and limit global temperature increases to 1.5C. But what is certain is that the world will be watching with more hope than expectation, Let’s hope our leaders don’t let us down (again).

What is COP26?

  • The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (otherwise known as COP26)  will be hosted by the UK and takes place at the SEC Centre in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.
  •  The largest international conference ever held in the UK was postponed from November 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • Italy is officially partnering the UK in leading the conference although its role has primarily involved preparatory work including holding a Youth4Climate conference in Milan last month which was addressed by, among others, Greta Thunberg. 
  • Alok Sharma, the former Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, is the conference’s president. 
  • Delegates including heads of state, climate experts and negotiators will come together to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change, accelerating action towards the goals of the Paris agreement and the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC).
  • The Paris agreement, signed in 2016, legally committed the 196 attending nations plus the United Nations to limiting global warming to well below 2ºC.

Simon Wyatt is sustainability partner at Cundall