Words matter. Last month, at the end of COP26, the climate summit in Glasgow where 196 nations, large and small, gathered to face the global environmental crisis, much ado was made about three words in the final, hard-won agreement. For the first time in a major climate pact, the two words “fossil fuels” were explicitly stated—targeted for reduction—even though fossil-fuel emissions have long been known as the primary culprit in global warming. Yet while that inclusion was cheered, another word choice was not: at the last minute, “phase out” coal power was changed to “phase down,” under intense pressure from India and China, both major coal hogs.
Words thread the needle in diplomatic negotiations, usually reflecting who has power at the table and who does not. But outside the Glasgow conference, climate activists—many thousands of whom demonstrated in the city’s streets throughout the two weeks of meetings—were unimpressed. Young climate leader Greta Thunberg summed up the words of the Glasgow accord as “blah-blah-blah”: “Unless we achieve immediate, drastic, unprecedented, annual emission cuts at the source,” she tweeted, “we’re failing when it comes to this climate crisis.”
Smaller countries, particularly island nations that are most vulnerable to rising seas, were reported to be disappointed with the agreement as well, though the deal does promise financing to poorer countries struggling with the results of 200 years of industrial pollution from wealthier ones. (Previous pledges, however, remain unpaid.) Still, some leaders tried to put a decent face on what was actually achieved in Glasgow. The goal of limiting average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Centigrade over preindustrial levels prompted the slogan “Keep 1.5 Alive!”—and as Alok Sharma, the summit’s British president, said after the agreement was finally concluded, “We’ve kept 1.5 within reach. But its pulse is weak, and we will only survive if we keep our promises.” Those pledges that the signatories made to reduce carbon emissions will be updated and, it is hoped, upgraded in a summit to be held next year. But far from clear is what will move powerful governments and corporations that influence the climate agenda to take more aggressive action between now and then.
And one particular item is not open to negotiation: the 1.5 Centigrade mark itself. As scientist Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told The Guardian, “A rise of 1.5 C is not an arbitrary number, it is not a political number. It is a planetary number. Every fraction of a degree is more dangerous.” Despite the hopes following the landmark Paris agreement in 2015, carbon emissions have risen steadily since, except for a brief period during Covid lockdowns, and, even if the latest pledges are kept, the planet will warm by 2.4 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century—a disastrous picture of the ensuing volatility of storms, fires, floods, and mass migration.
RECORD contributing editor Katharine Logan followed COP26 virtually, posting dispatches on architecturalrecord.com, and, in this issue she summarizes the summit and what it means for architecture and construction. The built environment accounts for 37 percent of global emissions, and more than 70 of the largest AEC firms came together to issue a challenge to the governments at the summit to reduce those, Logan reports. Among the leaders in this effort is 2021 AIA Gold Medal–winner Ed Mazria, CEO of the advocacy nonprofit Architecture 2030, who is calling for the building sector, including existing buildings, to get to net zero in 20 years.
So far, the struggle to reduce carbon emissions has come up against the force of market economies and the relentless mantra for growth, even in less-developed but resource-rich countries that seek to compete globally. Yet a pledge in Glasgow by an international coalition of investors, banks, and insurers—collectively controlling $130 trillion—to invest in net zero initiatives seems to signal both a positive commitment and perhaps a recognition that current economic models would not succeed on a dying planet.
And while some people say, “Don’t worry, mankind is so smart, we’re developing technologies to counter a hotter Mother Earth,” such innovations are likely to be far more costly and inefficient than confronting and changing smart mankind’s habits right now.
From almost any vantage point, the Glasgow agreement was a construct of compromises—ones that reflect “the interests, the conditions, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today,” said UN secretary general António Guterres. But he added, “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode.”