At the start of 2020, I recall a palpable sense of hope that the world would capitalise on the unprecedented rise in climate change awareness catalysed by the School Climate Strikes and Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Julie Hirigoyen - headshot

Then the pandemic struck, and we held our breath to see if the socioeconomic devastation caused would put the brakes on environmental ambition.

Now, at the start of 2021, UK plc is in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, with even less confidence or certainty in anything than ever before – except for the inexorable, exponential rising importance of net zero carbon to governments, capital markets and businesses alike. Indeed, if I had a sapling for every article I’d read over the past few weeks heralding 2021 as the year for climate action, I would be the proud manager of a forest by now.

So why is this year so critically important for climate action, and what does this mean for our industry? I will point to three key reasons.

First, 2021 has to be the turning point. Science confirms that to reach the goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C, CO2 emissions would have to start dropping “well before 2030” and be on a path to fall by about 45% by 2030. This is what is needed to get the world on to a cost-effective path to achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

Crucially, as the built environment is responsible for some 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it has to take centre stage in any effort to decarbonise. So, 2021 must be the year that the UK built environment starts its transformation from a climate change culprit to a solution.

Zero carbon

Source: Shutterstock/Olivier Le Moal

Second, 2021 is the year that the crucial climate conference (COP26) will see world leaders descend on Glasgow in November to put forward more ambitious national emission reduction targets, and a dedicated Built Environment day has just been confirmed as part of the main proceedings.

Last month, the UK government communicated its own new target to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. Indeed, 60% of world GDP is now covered by net-zero targets, and within a few weeks that should be 75% as Joe Biden takes office in the White House and brings the US back into the Paris Agreement.

But it is worth highlighting that despite some progress made in the second half of 2020 with the introduction of Green Homes Grants, a Green Finance Strategy, the PM’s 10-point environment plan, and various consultations related to building standards and regulations, UK government policy on buildings currently falls well short of its net zero ambitions.

So, in 2021, we look forward to the publication of long-overdue policies including the Heat and Buildings Strategy; Building Regulations uplift for new domestic buildings including Future Homes Standard 2025; a consultation on a similar uplift for new commercial buildings; a long-term, properly funded home energy-efficiency programme going beyond 2022, when the Green Homes Grant scheme is due to end; a consultation on improving the energy efficiency of owner-occupied homes; and a consultation on operational ratings for commercial buildings; among others.

Third, the business and finance community have awoken to the very real commercial risks and opportunities that net zero carbon represents.

A recent HSBC poll of 1,000 UK businesses found that 73% of respondents plan to introduce new net zero goals in 2021 and 78% expect sales to grow this year from an increased focus on sustainability.

Any business aiming for net zero will need to consider its real estate footprint, so should consider signing up to the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. This commits them to achieve net zero carbon in operation for all building areas under their direct control by 2030, and to advocate for all buildings to be net zero carbon by 2050.

Looking ahead to the end of 2021, it is possible we will be able to look back on some of the most meaningful progress yet. I urge you to consider what part your business will have played in that success.

Julie Hirigoyen is chief executive of UKGBC