By Christiana Hageneder, Head of the Programme for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (PEEB), and Martina Otto, Head of UNEP’s Cities Unit and GlobalABC Secretariat

In a few days, thousands of world leaders, CEOs, negotiators, activists and journalists will gather in Glasgow for COP26, which comes at a time of climate emergency.

When we think of the root causes of climate change, they are often represented by smoking exhaust pipes, cargo ships, planes, coal mines or oil fields; rarely by our own homes, offices, heating boilers and air-conditioners, or construction sites and cement plants.

Yet buildings are a top emitter of climate-changing gases into our atmosphere: 37 per cent of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020 came from the construction and operation of our buildings – houses, apartments, offices, hospitals, schools, markets, train stations or airports.

The buildings and construction sector must urgently be decarbonized through a triple strategy: Reducing energy demand, decarbonizing the power supply, and addressing embodied carbon stored in building materials, if we are to have any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C

According to the 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Constructions, which was released on 19 October 2021, the challenges to reaching a net zero, energy-efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector are considerable: GlobalABC’s Global Buildings Climate Tracker shows improvements in energy investment and power decarbonization, yet these efforts are insufficient, both in terms of speed and scale, to achieve the deep sectoral transformation that is needed.

Glasgow must mark a breakthrough for climate action in buildings.

The good news is that the world is waking up to the reality that the built environment is a critical sector for climate action. Six years after COP21 in Paris that put buildings on the agenda, 2021 features a Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day. Taking place on 11 November, it is spearheaded by a strong alliance of partners rallying under the #BuildingToCOP26 campaign, with support from the COP26 UK presidency and the High-Level Climate Champions.

To foster radical collaboration, the first Buildings Pavilion inside the Blue Zone is set to become the action hub for actors driving this transformation. At the Buildings Pavilion, hosted by GlobalABC, in partnership with the Business for Climate Leadership Pavilion, a community of public and private stakeholders, governments, businesses, civil society and professional communities, will speak with one voice and one ambition, calling all stakeholders to be engaged and committed to achieving a zero-carbon and resilient sector by 2050.

Against a backdrop of global energy markets in turmoil, economies hit hard by the pandemic and the imperative for a green and just recovery, the Buildings Pavilion will host debates, showcase the solutions that work best, and be the place where deep collaboration in this sector is forged.

The Buildings Pavilion will host a packed programme and provide a stage to country and industry commitments: From enabling policy frameworks to a buildings market transformation manifesto, key principles for adaptation, investment and sustainable financing, science-based industry targets and carbon sequestration in the built environment. It will take the pulse of progress on the critical issues from regeneration of cities, retrofitting and circularity to tackling embodied carbon or reducing the energy voracity of cooling.

Science is telling us that we don’t have time, that gradual progress does not get us there, but that we need breakthroughs in every sector if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference is the rallying point to make this step change and achieve transformational breakthroughs for climate action in buildings. 

Several countries and industry players will lead the way by committing to decarbonization along the building and construction lifecycle and take immediate action to halve emissions by 2030 in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, based on ambitious NDCs or science-based targets for industry. We need to step up investments towards energy efficiency, align building policies with the Paris agreement, use public procurement as an effective market lever and driver of change, and provide stronger support for knowledge and technology sharing. Aspects spanning from embodied carbon to ensuring resilience must be embedded in buildings standards.

The buildings we build today will stand for 50 to 80 years. With buildings accounting for more than one third of global energy-related CO2 emissions, we are at a pivotal moment. Let’s come to COP26 with the resolve of building the buildings we deserve to live and work in and building the future we want. The Built Environment is a giant for the climate that has woken up. Let’s make sure he puts on the seven-mile boots to make the giant steps the world urgently needs.