The annual United Nations climate summit kicked off over the weekend in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. But even as government representatives, environmental groups, scientists, and business leaders gather in the Red Sea resort town for COP27 (COP stands for Conference of Parties), the earth is on track for a catastrophic 2.5°C of heating by the end of the century. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” UN secretary general António Guterres said at the summit opening. “The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade–on our watch.”
Last year’s event, COP26, took place in Glasgow, where countries failed to commit to measures that would keep global heating below 1.5°C. And although they agreed to bring forward revised national commitments in line with that goal this year (instead of the originally planned five years), the prospects for significant progress at COP27 are dim. Fewer than 25 of 193 countries have so far submitted revised commitments. What is more, geopolitical and economic turbulence and the failure of wealthy, polluting countries to help poor, vulnerable ones cope with climate impacts (that the latter had little or no part in causing) make the goal of last year’s rallying cry to “keep 1.5 alive” fragile at best.
But even in these circumstances, COP27—which is being billed as “the Africa COP” and “the implementation COP”—remains a significant opportunity, especially for the built environment sector. “We must take our place at the table and own the 40 percent impact we have on global emissions,” says Juliette Morgan, global ESG consultancy director at Gensler. Morgan will be speaking at COP about the real estate sector’s role in decarbonization and equity. “We shouldn't be waiting for governments to legislate change,” she says. “We must remain diligent in aligning with and—wherever we can—exceeding COP targets, especially as they relate to the levelling up agenda.” Levelling up refers to the imperative to reduce inequities in the global impacts of climate change.
Non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local and regional governments, and private sector firms are increasingly using COP as a forum for demonstrating solutions, partnering in implementation, and backing national actors in making necessary policy changes. More nimble than national governments, these sub-national parties are making significant progress in their own extensive spheres of influence. The COP26 Communiqué, for example, declared the commitment of over 60 of the world’s largest AEC-sector firms—collectively responsible for over $300 billion in annual construction—along with two dozen organizations representing over a million building industry professionals worldwide, to reduce the emissions for which they’re responsible to levels compatible with a 67 percent or better probability of meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC carbon budget. “This is where change is happening,” says Lisa Richmond, former executive director of AIA Seattle. She represented the AIA at COP26 and is attending COP27 as a senior fellow at Architecture 2030, a building-sector nonprofit focused on the climate emergency. “Federal actors are not going to get us out of this mess. But private actors are a point of hope, a critical part of the solution, and have a leadership role to play.”
With construction growth over the next decade predicted to take off in the rapidly urbanizing Global South, key focus areas for built environment-related sessions at COP27, which runs through November 18, include resilience, decarbonization, and financing, with particular attention to replicable, regionally specific solutions. In the Global North, meanwhile, the immediate climate priority is the ongoing sector-wide shift to electrification and decarbonization of the grid. Cross-disciplinary knowledge sharing at COP is also expected to encompass biodiversity, health, and livability. For AEC professionals wanting to attend virtually, many of the events are live streamed and/or recorded for later viewing. The Building to COP Coalition, a group of sustainability-focused built-environment organizations, has compiled a calendar of relevant events.