COP26: Cities, Regions, and the Built Environment

Daisy Mann

Account Executive

The day that was

  • The second and final Wednesday of COP26 marked Transport Day, with world leaders focusing discussions on the decarbonisation of the Transport sector.
  • The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance will officially launch today, with a host of nations signing up to fix a date to phase our oil and gas production. Spearheaded by Denmark and Costa Rica, and Alliance announced a range of new members on Transport Day, but notably the UK will not sign the pledge. Boris Johnson has confirmed that he will certainly ‘look at what Denmark and Costa Rica are proposing.’
  • 18 nations responsible for 40% of global annual emissions in aviation – including Canada, UK, Spain, Turkey, Japan, Costa Rica and more – signed a new declaration in support of the development on emissions targets for aviation. In accordance with the Paris Agreement, the targets will be pre-2050 and will support the 1.5C goal. Some of the World’s biggest businesses also came together to discuss sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), with the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) opening to new members for the first time since its initial launch in April.
  • The UK has been strong on its position to end new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030, as well as new petrol and diesel heavy goods vehicles (HGV) sales by 2040. As hoped, the declaration has gathered global support, and more than 30 countries and large-scale global businesses have signed up to the commitment. Interestingly, the world’s largest car markets (the US, Germany, China) opted not to sign the declaration at this stage – but businesses operating in these nations have.
  • A new ‘Clydebank Declaration’ has been signed by 19 nations to confirm the development of zero-emission shipping routes between global ports. Dubbed ‘green shipping corridors’, discussions identified the need for a mix of technologies to support low-carbon shipping, including hydrogen, methanol and electrification. The private maritime sector was vocal during Transport Day deliberations, with some 200 businesses as part of the ‘Getting to Zero Coalition’ calling on world leaders to do more when it comes to reaching Net Zero.
  • In non-Transport related news, the US and China released a joint declaration promising cooperation on a host of environmental issues, most notably including commitments to reduce methane emissions.
  • In tandem with Transport Day at COP26, we also learned that the UK Government’s Environment Bill has finally received Royal Assent, after a process of more than 2 years to secure. The Bill supports the Government’s overarching vision for protecting nature for future generations, and to confirm the UK’s post-Brexit approach to environmental governance.

Today’s Theme: Cities, Regions, and the Built Environment

As the climate conference prepares to wind down for another year, all attention is turning to the final themed day of COP26 where policymakers will explore how they can make cities, regions, and the built environment more sustainable.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth and is made from cement – a resource that is singlehandedly responsible for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Whilst attention throughout the conference has focused on the impact of sectors such as aviation and agriculture on carbon emissions, the built environment is in fact responsible for an immense 40% of global carbon emissions, which is perhaps unsurprising when taking into consideration the energy required to create a building, its foundations, and to keep it operational.

Following on from Transport Day and the blow that several major companies did not agree to the phase out of combustion engines, air pollution will continue to be a pertinent point on today’s agenda with pollution from buildings accountable for half a million deaths annually and low carbon transport links being the key to connecting sustainable cities.

Other major issues on the COP26 programme include how leaders can create demand for low carbon materials and how developing cities will be supported in their net zero ambitions, alongside the continued question of how these initiatives will be financed.  Given that 80% of the buildings expected to be standing in 2050 already exist, the focus of today will be on retrofitting – the process of upgrading systems with modern technology to make existing building stocks more sustainable.

Championing the conversation on the decarbonisation of cities has been the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of mayors that represent over 700 million people and work to identify sustainable objectives with an emphasis on creating “resilient cities”.  Chaired by London’s Sadiq Khan, C40 Cities advocate for social justice alongside climate justice, stressing that certain communities are more vulnerable to its consequences than others.

The resounding message ahead of the day’s proceedings is that, as demand for housing in cities intensifies and the pace of construction increases, a collaborative approach between policymakers and the private sector, and a greater role for local actors, will be crucial to actualising today’s outcomes.

The North-South Divide

A notable source of tension in the discourse surrounding the international decarbonisation of the built environment has been the disparities between the Global North and Global South’s records on carbon emissions and how the former contributes more emissions at the expense of the latter; it can be expected that this sentiment will be a key feature of the day’s deliberations.

Concentrated in the Global North are post-industrial economies that have undergone mass urbanisation – meaning there is already dense development – and the region is therefore a significantly greater producer of greenhouse gas emissions than the Global South, where the vast majority of countries have emerging economies.  Despite cities in the Global South having historically produced less emissions, the region endures the greatest impacts of climate change.

With 95% of future urban expansion expected to take place in the Global South, countries across the world clearly have different priorities with the burden of decarbonisation through retrofitting placed on post-industrial economies whilst the onus to develop sustainably is placed on emerging economies.

As policymakers come together at COP26 to discuss the decarbonisation of the built environment, concerns over the equity of decarbonisation policies will likely arise as it becomes increasingly clear that the outcomes of the day cannot take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

Domestic Progress

In the weeks leading to COP26, the UK government published  its Net Zero Strategy identifying several policy objectives, including a requirement for all heating appliances to be low carbon by 2035 and for emissions from public sector buildings to be reduced by 75% by 2036.  Whilst these objectives are promising, incentivising millions of people to actively make costly, yet sustainable, choices will be a considerable hurdle for the government that it is yet to address.  The UK government’s event at COP26 on how to incentivise timely investment into such priorities will hopefully provide greater clarity on this subject.

In addition, those who expected to see the return of the Green Homes Grant in last month’s Comprehensive Spending Review were left disappointed, leaving the policymakers at COP26 with lofty expectations to fulfil.

Beyond COP26, domestic pressure for the UK government to be more ambitious in its plans to decarbonise cities, regions, and the built environment has come from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee who recently published a report recommending that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) entrench net zero policies at its core.  Alongside this, the Committee has encouraged the government to increasingly engage with local actors and give them more power to enforce sustainability requirements within their local plans.  With a contentious white paper on planning currently under review, it is yet to be seen whether the government will be responsive to the calls for radical reform to its sustainability objectives.

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