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Paul Groves looks at plans to champion sustainability in buildings at COP26 in November

As the Government’s climate change ambassador continues to rack up the air miles in his quest to tell the world that we must all change our ways to save the environment, the construction industry is making preparations to show just how far it has come in embracing the sustainability agenda.

Although construction is often one of the main directions the fingers start pointing at when the blame game starts up as regards our impact on the environment, many believe a quiet revolution has been taking shape ahead of the UK’s hosting of the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow in November.

The aim is to showcase just how far construction has come in a relatively short space of time.

And although the industry acknowledges far more still needs to be achieved, many believe the progress will surprise other industries where the sustainability agenda has barely made a ripple in the receding tides.

The targets are tough, but industry willingness to accept them can only be a positive sign

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification

A virtual showcase

For months, the UK Green Building Council has been working in partnership with the wider industry to launch a Built Environment Virtual Pavilion for COP26.

The Built Environment Virtual Pavilion is being curated by a coalition of more than 40 delivery partner organisations across the built environment sector, to give the sector a strong voice at COP26.  

The Virtual Pavilion will enable widespread access and engagement with built environment issues at COP26 that will complement whatever activities are able to happen in person, and provide an online legacy that will last far beyond November.

Key elements include an exhibition to showcase of global best practice within a bespoke VR space, the design of an inspirational and artistic centrepiece for the Pavilion and a programme of tours and talks, keynotes, panels and other downloadable content.

A united front

An impressive array of industry bodies, stakeholders, manufacturers, contractors and suppliers have united to create the showcase and they believe that the partnership approach is one construction can adopt moving forward in order to accelerate progress.

Simon Wyatt, Sustainability Partner, Cundall, described the decision to get involved as a “no brainer” and added: “We’ve already seen one degree of climate change above preindustrial times, and we need to adapt and show resilience if we are to uphold our climate commitments and slow down the rate of warming.

“COP26 was always going to be a significant milestone in the global fight against climate change, but the pandemic delayed event has meant that the urgency is even greater. It also means that the momentum is starting to swing and we need our industry to converse and take collective responsibility for our carbon emissions.” 

Others, such as Peter Duff, Chairperson at leading law firm Shoosmiths, which advises clients on how best to achieve sustainability goals, said work had already been taking place for many years and the COP26 pavilion is the perfect way to highlight the progress.

“Thinking about our built environment, how it is structured, and what we can do to make it sustainable for future generations is of paramount importance,” he added. “It is incumbent on businesses to lead the way in minimising and eradicating actions that can contribute to climate change.” 

The next stages

There is also a growing belief that where political leaders will use the summit to talk about aspirations, the pavilion will be an opportunity to show what has been achieved and the next stages of the sustainability agenda.

Melanie Leech, Chief Executive at the British Property Federation, one of the delivery partners of the pavilion, said: “While much of the attention at COP26 will be on the leadership expected from governments, the private sector will have an equally important role to play in addressing the climate emergency. Real estate is fundamental to our shared goals and is stepping up to respond to the challenges facing it, its customers and communities. 

“It’s fantastic to be involved in such a collaborative initiative – this virtual pavilion represents an opportunity to emphasise the UK property industry’s commitment to tackle climate change, while sharing knowledge and debating some of the crucial aspects of our pathway to net zero.” 

Positive signs towards net zero

Construction leaders have already agreed clear targets for the industry to unite behind in its mission to drive carbon out of the sector.

In July, the Construction Leadership Council published its Construct Zero Performance Framework. For the first time the framework sets out headline commitments for carbon reduction at a sector level, along with a series of measures and metrics to show how progress is being made.

Construction Leadership Council co-chair Andy Mitchell said: “We are seeing huge demand from across the sector to push forward towards Net Zero, and this has been reflected in the level of consultation feedback we received when we tested these metrics with industry.

“We can have confidence that these measures will help guide us towards a lower carbon future, and I look forward to seeing progress.”

The targets are tough, but the fact that the industry has been willing to accept them and start work on achieving them can only be a positive sign. It also shows how much more hard work is required.

But amidst the hot air, the criss-crossing international flights and bold promises of others that inevitably surround sustainability, the climate crisis and COP26, construction could well be taking a virtual lead in the push for net zero and positive, lasting change.

Paul Groves is editor of Specification