Progress on carbon trading was the biggest outcome from the climate conference for construction and should drive demand for low-carbon materials

Simon Rawlinson New

Boris Johnson opened COP26 with a warning that the world was “one  minute from midnight” in the fight against global warming.  Pledges in connection with deforestation, methane production and a moratorium on international investment in coal demonstrate significant progress achieved during preparatory negotiations.

China and the United States’ announcement of a bilateral climate change cooperation agreement was a game changer, as was India’s pledge to reach net zero by 2070.

The prime minister helpfully summarised the priorities as being coal, cars, cash and trees. Perhaps cement should have been on the list too

Shockingly, the conference declaration was the first ever to mention fossil fuel emissions in the context of climate change.  Aligning the legitimate rights of most of the world’s population to a quality of life with challenging fossil fuel reduction targets was never going to be easy, and the fair “phasing down” of fossil fuel use will be the defining geo-political problem of the next 30 years.

As a result, measured against the key aim of “keeping 1.5 alive”, the conference fell short of hope if not its limited ambition. An assessment of the latest Nationally Defined Contributions (NDCs) by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) shows that there is a 50% chance that the CO2 budget for the 1.5ºC global warming target will be exhausted by the early 2030s. 

That is even before the UK plans to phase out gas boilers. Clearly the trajectory will need to accelerate, but who is going to jump first?

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Part of the problem is that major emitters including China, Australia, Russia and Brazil did not propose tougher targets for COP26.  That means that a lot of progress on NDCs will be needed over the next 12 months. If that does not happen, then the focus of COP27 will need to shift decisively to resilience and adaption. This is already an urgent requirement. 

A big disappointment in the final agreement is the shameful rejection of the proposed Loss and Damage Fund designed to support countries affected by climate change. This short-term decision will do little to win hearts and minds of developing nations and shows that the liabilities of the developed world will only grow and grow.

Turning closer to home, construction had a high-profile COP26, and it is fair to say that both the CLC and UKGBC achieved a high profile on the COP fringe, with the launch of the Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap and the publication of the first update of the ConstructZero Performance Framework. I enjoyed the CLC sessions and in particular appreciated the examples of pragmatic steps being taken to remove carbon from construction through choice of materials, wider adoption of manufacturing and a more mindful management of the vehicle fleet. 

Carbon trading could hold the key to the creation of a genuinely global market for high quality carbon abatement

For me, the most striking presentation came from Darren James of Keltbray, highlighting the firm’s commitment to expand the use of low carbon concrete.  Darren nailed home the point that everyone in the project team, from client and funder to engineer and QS, has a role in enabling or delaying the adoption of this critical material.  The argument could have been made at any point over the past 15 years or more, but I feel we are reaching a tipping point in the adoption of low-carbon cement.

In the run-up to COP26, the prime minister helpfully summarised the priorities as being coal, cars, cash and trees. Perhaps cement should have been on the list too. Cement accounts for 8% of global carbon emissions and, if it were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest emitter after China and the US. Now that deforestation targets have been agreed, perhaps cement should be added to the 3Cs of climate change for COP27?

There was another agreement in connection with carbon trading that will also accelerate the decarbonisation of cement. Carbon trading is a dry issue that has remained unresolved since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It could hold the key to the creation of a genuinely global market for high quality carbon abatement.

The new agreement will create a centralised carbon trading system and will underpin bilateral trading of credits between nations. Crucially, the quality of credits will improve, attracting large volumes of investment into abatement schemes such as afforestation and carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). 

Ultimately this means that more cement users will pay carbon credits, which in turn will drive demand for low-carbon materials. Products are likely to be more expensive, but crucially, investment in expanded manufacturing capacity will follow alongside other net-zero manufacture such as the plasterboard plant that St-Gobain is  already developing in the UK.  

If the construction sector asks what COP26 did for it, accelerated carbon trading is the answer.

The danger with a high-profile event such as  COP26 is of course that, once the delegates have gone home and the conference set-up has been struck, then the world reverts to existing habits.  The UK was the first nation to be on a legally binding trajectory to net zero and it is arguable that we are doing our bit.  

However, the UK is behind the curve and our trajectory is neither deep nor fast enough to keep 1.5 alive. The reality is that events like COP26 can achieve only so much, but then other actors need to crowd in to finish the job – governments, business, people. Rather than looking back to what COP26 could have achieved, we all now need to decide what more we can do.

Simon Rawlinson is a partner at Arcadis and a member of the Construction Leadership Council

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You can hear interviews recorded at COP26 in the Building Talks Net Zero podcast out now. Interviewees include Gregor CraigSkanska UK chief executive, Hannah Vickers, Mace chief of staff, and Sarah Linnell, engineer at Cundall, who chaired the CLC event at COP26. 

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