Yesterday marked the closing of the Race to Zero November Dialogues (9-19 November 2020), an online event convened in lieu of the postponed UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

Julie Hirigoyen - headshot

Julie Hirigoyen

With a year to go until the Covid-delayed COP26 takes place in Glasgow, it is timely to reflect on where we stand in the race to net-zero-carbon.

At a recent UKGBC Leaders Network event, Nigel Topping, appointed by the UK government as High Level Climate Action Champion for COP26, spoke of the ‘ambition loop’ between the public and private sectors, through which bold government policies and private-sector leadership reinforce each other and together take climate action to the next level.

Nowhere is this more true than in the built environment sector – a highly compliance-driven industry with relatively low levels of R&D, but increasing interest in net-zero-carbon performance outcomes.

It is here that industry leadership should provide much-needed confidence to government that a stronger, long-term policy framework to decarbonise buildings will provide both clarity and certainty for built environment businesses to drive greater investment in the climate solutions needed by the marketplace.

Goldsmith Street

Source: Tim Crocker

Goldsmith St Norwich: Passivhaus principles reduce carbon footprint

Despite the pandemic, net-zero-carbon buildings are higher on the agenda than ever before. In just 18 months, we have seen the publication of the UKGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework, LETI’s Climate Emergency Design Guide, RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, the BBP’s Net Zero Carbon Pathway Framework and the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.

These sit alongside approaches being developed that contribute towards net-zero-carbon buildings including DfP/NABERS UK, Passivhaus Plus and CRREM. Each of these initiatives is helping to drive action by the industry towards net-zero-carbon buildings.

Despite Covid-19, net-zero-carbon buildings are higher on the agenda than ever before

A good proxy for industry leadership is, of course, the scope and urgency of the corporate climate change commitments being made by built environment businesses – many of which can be found on UKGBC’s Climate Commitment Platform. So far, 30 UK businesses have signed up to the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment (almost a third of all total global signatories) – a number that will rise rapidly in advance of COP26 as built environment firms and corporates recognise the critical role real estate plays in their transition to net-zero carbon emissions.

To reinforce the positive feedback loop, industry leadership must push the UK government to follow suit with a range of policy measures that match their level of ambition. But the delay in the review of Building Regulations Part L for residential properties (including updates to the Future Homes Standard), and the absence of a long-awaited parallel review of Part L for commercial buildings, suggest that inertia still prevails in Westminster.

While there has been some welcome policy progress, particularly on domestic energy efficiency (MEES and Green Home Grants) – with more welcome news in the PM’s 10-point plan earlier this week – the scale of this particular challenge remains daunting. Further long-term policy measures are sorely needed to stimulate market confidence and investment in the skills and solutions required.

While awaiting such policy measures, the saving grace for this sector could be the inexorable increase in appetite from the financial sector to allocate green finance and capital. We have already seen the emergence of green mortgages, green building loans, green bonds and revolving credit facilities, as well as various other financial products aimed at improving both the energy-efficiency and carbon intensity of buildings in the UK.

And, in a welcome push from government, the chancellor has announced mandatory disclosure of climate-related risks by many UK businesses by 2025, meaning that the finance community will increasingly be equipped with the tools it needs to push for more exacting net-zero requirements attached to capital loans, credit facilities and insurance products – which itself will force the industry to go further faster.

As an industry that is in desperate need of reinvention in the wake of a pandemic that has turned it upside down, the net-zero-carbon ambition loop described could be just what is needed to overcome the status quo and accelerate us towards a clean and resilient future.

Julie Hirigoyen is chief executive of UKGBC

The Climate Crisis Challenge logo