The United Nations climate conference (COP27) closed in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh this weekend with an overtime victory. A breakthrough agreement on the contentious issue of climate reparations provides for a “Loss and Damage” fund to support less-wealthy countries that are vulnerable to disproportionate climate impacts. Parties at the conference also emphasized for the first time the need not only to mitigate climate change, but to adapt in the face of it. And, crucially, countries reaffirmed their commitment to reduce carbon emissions in line with keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. That goal, however, is now fragile at best, with current national commitments putting the planet on track for a 2.5-degree increase by the end of the century. "A fund for loss and damage is essential,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “but it's not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map—or turns an entire African country to desert. The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition." 

So does the AEC sector. The gap between the sector’s current trajectory and the pathway to decarbonize by 2050 is wider than ever, according to the 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, released at COP27 by the UN Environment Programme-hosted Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. In 2021, emissions from buildings and construction—which account for 37 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—rebounded from pandemic levels to reach a new all-time high. Worldwide, raw material use is predicted to double by 2060, with steel and concrete already major sources of emissions. In the Global South, which is expected to account for 90 percent of total population increase over the next two decades, construction materials are projected to dominate resource consumption, with associated GHG emissions also set to double by 2060. Meanwhile, just 26 percent of countries have mandatory and comprehensive building energy codes.

While none of this is encouraging from a climate perspective, Ed Mazria, CEO at Architecture 2030, a building-sector nonprofit focused on the climate emergency, cautions against the psychological paralysis that can result from a ceaseless deluge of doom and gloom. “There’s always more to do,” he says, “but we want to look at where we’re going and the progress we are making." He points to the fact that buildings’ energy intensity and emissions intensity has fallen worldwide since 2015. Between 2020 and 2021 investment in building energy efficiency rose by an unprecedented 16 percent. In addition, in the rapidly urbanizing countries, there is the potential to leapfrog the lessons of the Global North and achieve regionally appropriate, low-carbon solutions. “There’s a real recognition that development of the Global South needs to come from within,” says Vincent Martinez, Architecture 2030’s president. “It’s about fostering wealth creation and knowledge for the people themselves.” The rising cost of fossil fuels is further incentivizing low-carbon development in these countries, Mazria says, while, for projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity in history, according to a 2020 report from the International Energy Agency. Due to such factors as weather, atmospheric conditions, and the varying proximity of the earth to the sun over the course of the year, solar energy is available to the Global South at levels almost twice as high per square meter as in the Global North. “We could say that the richest places in terms of free energy distribution are in the Global South,” Mazria said in a recorded presentation at COP27, reflecting a growing awareness—including within the global financial sector—that such ecological assets constitute a significant form of wealth.

As national-level statements and commitments from what’s being called “the implementation COP” seek traction, architects can contribute in key capacities, says Illya Azaroff, founding director of + LAB Architect, a Brooklyn-based practice focused on resilient design. Azaroff, who attended COP27 on behalf of the AIA, sees a vital need for what he calls “intermediary actors” capable of envisioning how the top-down climate commitments of COP—and their associated funding—connect to regional, municipal, and community-level priorities. “The need is there, the financing is there, and the methodology is there, but we don’t have enough people translating it into practice,” he says. “Anybody who can play that intermediary role is necessary right now, and quite frankly, it’s what architects do every day, for every project.” Substantively, the requirements of this bridging role go beyond carbon-neutral, climate-adaptive design to address equity and regeneration. “It speaks to the heart of who we are as architects,” Azaroff says, “defining what makes good design in the 21st century.”