When we launched the Climate Crisis Challenge campaign back in January, we had no idea the climate crisis would be far from the only challenge we would be tackling this year. 


The good news is that as UKGBC chief executive Julie Hirigoyen confidently predicted at the start of lockdown, Covid-19 has not derailed the climate agenda at all. If anything, it has focused people’s minds and encouraged more companies and investors to double down on it.

The momentum behind the climate agenda and the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is thanks in no small part to UKGBC, which recently published the report ‘Building the case for net zero: A feasibility study into the design, delivery and cost of new net-zero-carbon buildings’.

Watch the full video below:

Liz Hamson editors dinner

Liz Hamson, Property Week

Julie Hirigoyen - headshot

Julie Hirigoyen, UKGBC

LH: There are still a huge number of companies that have not yet committed to net zero. Why do you think that is and what’s your message to them?

JH: A lot of organisations, including property and construction firms, are signing up to science-based targets and committing to cutting their emissions in line with 1.5°C warming limits. Research published just last week by the New Climate Institute found that the number of net-zero pledges from cities, regions and companies has roughly doubled in less than a year since late 2019.

For those that haven’t pledged this yet, I would say this: first, the science is clear and unambiguous – anything over 1.5C of warming on pre-industrial levels will cause havoc to economies, investment portfolios and supply chains so is likely to be catastrophic for business survival.

Second, investors and financiers are piling on the pressure – recently 137 global financial institutions, holding nearly US$20tn in assets, called on 1,800 high-emitting companies to set 1.5°C science-based emissions reduction targets and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

Third, customers and staff are also increasingly asking for the same thing.

LH: Looking ahead to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, what are the key messages from Nigel Topping, the government-appointed high-level climate action champion for COP26, who spoke at one of your recent events?

JH: The event that you mentioned was for business leaders in our membership community. Nigel told them in no uncertain terms what success and failure would look like for COP26 next year. He started by positioning climate change as a real failure of traditional risk management practices. And then he emphasised the growing concern scientists have as all the past predictions of climate change are materialising much faster and much more severely than anticipated.

He also spoke of the anger and fear that is felt, particularly by younger generations and our future workforces, as they reflect on the political apathy of the past two to three decades, where we’ve had this on the table but not done much about it, and as they contemplate a future that’s pretty bleak and uncertain in the context of runaway climate change.

He explained why COP26 is such an important moment in time. The Paris Agreement reached in 2015 was really the first time we secured worldwide buy-in to ultimately reduce global emissions to something close to 1.5 ºC. But the reality is that the sum of all the national emissions reduction targets will take us to somewhere above 3 ºC.

Any more than 1.5 degrees of warming will cause havoc to economies and portfolios

COP26 is the first five-year milestone since that Paris Agreement was reached and so it should re-enforce the process that was agreed in Paris. Lots and lots of countries around the world need to submit ratcheted-up ambitions to more stretching net-zero targets and more rapid decarbonisation trajectories.

To give governments the confidence to do that, they really need non-state actors, which is where Nigel’s role comes in. He is there to stimulate ambition and commitment to net zero from businesses, regions, cities and states around the world.

LH: As we reported in Property Week, you recently appointed a new chairman, architect Sunand Prasad. What is at the top of his to-do list of what, in your own words, is “a critical point in the journey”?

JH: Sunand is keen to use his position as chair of UKGBC to continue championing climate action. He is passionate about the role that we as an organisation can play in disseminating practical solutions and know-how to accelerate the adoption of net-zero carbon across the industry. That is the critical point in our journey, and moves us on from advocating and making the business case for sustainability.

He wants UKGBC to become the ‘go-to’ organisation for anyone that is thinking: “How do I practically do it? How do I deliver net-zero carbon on my building, or my scheme or my asset portfolio?”

He has also pledged to make it his personal mission to increase the diversity of individuals around the table when sustainability in the built environment is discussed. The sustainability sector is relatively non-diverse and when it comes to sustainability in the built environment, discussions often happen in a bit of a bubble.

LH: What’s coming up in your Advancing Net Zero programme in terms of next projects and initiatives?

JH: The piece of work we did most recently under the net zero programme was a cost evaluation study looking to illustrate how new buildings in particular – specifically offices and residential buildings – can be designed to reach net-zero-carbon standards. We looked at the impact of that on the designs and capital costs.

LH: What are your hopes, fears and expectations for the coming year and what sort of progress do you want to see the property industry make by COP26 in November 2021?

JH: I hope in a few years’ time we look back on 2020 as the first year emissions started to drop globally. My fear is that the desire and desperate need to boost short-term economic growth will mean we are not investing enough in green recovery measures, that we’ll turn to fossil-fuel-reliant investments and that the carbon emission reductions caused by the pandemic won’t be sustained in future years.

In terms of what I would like to see us achieve by COP26, there are two big projects. The first is a net-zero whole-life carbon roadmap. We at UKGBC are looking to collaborate with a multitude of other organisations, including the government, to ensure that we’re really clear as to what needs to happen by when for different parts of the sector.

We hope to have come up with that by COP26 so we can launch it at the conference and thereby inform future organisational commitments and targets to ensure the whole sector is driving in the same direction.

The other big project is getting more and more businesses to sign up to the WorldGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment (www.worldgbc.org/thecommitment). If we have enough organisations – particularly non-built environment organisations – signing up to that commitment then we can really start to create that market pull and market demand for the sector to deliver net zero carbon, as that is what customers are asking for.

Watch the full video here:

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