Key takeaways from COP28 for the built environment

December 14, 2023

From 30 November to 12 December 2023, the United Arab Emirates hosted COP28, the most recent in a series of annual United Nations conferences on climate change. With buildings accounting for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions, the built environment was a core focal point at this year’s conference. 

Each year since its inception in 1992, the Conference of the Parties (COP) has provided a platform for open discussion and ongoing collaboration toward a more sustainable world. This year’s discussion was largely driven by two years of research from the First Global Stocktake (GST), a “scorecard” of the world’s progress toward the objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement—most notably, limiting global temperature rise to 1.5℃.

While the conference was not without its challenges, setbacks and disagreements, several positive developments culminated in a final-day agreement that signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance. Keeping on this positive note, in this article we recap some of the promising highlights related to the built environment.

Built environment focus day

The built environment plays an increasingly critical role in the global dialogue around carbon emissions, and panel discussions at COP28 reflected that shift. Each day of COP28 was assigned a theme, and the built environment had its dedicated focus day on 6 December: “Multilevel Action, Urbanisation and Built Environment/Transport.”

The GST report formed the backdrop of conversations about the built environment by highlighting the critical role of buildings and the need for ongoing collaboration to accomplish the objectives of the Paris Agreement. According to the World Bank, buildings that fail to adapt may face economic risks ranging from property damage to increased insurance costs.

While buildings face extreme challenges, they are also uniquely placed to be part of the solution. The International Energy Agency estimates that retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient operations could reduce global carbon emissions by up to 6.1 gigatons by 2050.

Buildings Breakthrough

Arguably the most significant development on COP28’s built environment day was the Buildings Breakthrough, the International Code Council’s (ICC) initiative to facilitate the universal adoption of near-zero emissions buildings by 2030. 

The pledge was signed by 28 countries representing over one-third of the global population, more than half of global emissions, and two-thirds of global GDP. The Buildings Breakthrough initiative aims to strengthen international cooperation toward decarbonising the built environment and making sustainable solutions the most affordable, accessible, and attractive option worldwide by 2030. 

Several global organisations, including the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency, will perform annual assessments, serving as unofficial watchdogs to ensure meaningful progress. These assessments will align closely with the annual Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction.

The next phase of the Buildings Breakthrough is to establish priority actions to drive progress. A March 2024 Buildings and Climate Global Forum has been set for global building and construction ministers in Paris, France. Building codes, designed to reinforce intentions with regulatory action, will be one core focus of ongoing meetings.

World Green Building Council open letter

The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), a global network of over 75 national Green Building Councils and leading businesses within the buildings and construction sector, presented a unified call to action in the form of an open letter. Hundreds of businesses and organisations from every region have signed this letter to lend their support. 

It urges political leaders to deliver the regulations necessary to scale up action and deliver on the massive potential within the sector. The open letter also supports the Buildings Breakthrough, noting that the sector has the potential to reduce 37% of global carbon emissions while creating $1.5 trillion in sustainable investment opportunities within emerging markets. 

Industry group BuildingToCOP emphasised in a related session that the solutions needed to achieve emissions goals already exist, advocating a focus on accelerating deployment at scale. 

Financing climate adaptation and resilience

A first-of-its-kind report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) created another standout moment. The report makes a genuine business case for financing climate adaptation and resilience for both the property industry and the wider environment, which is particularly important in an atmosphere of restrained funding. Developing countries will need at least $200 billion every year by 2030 to adapt to the impacts of a warming global climate, such as extreme weather events and a rising sea level. 

The BCG study details the range of opportunities and benefits for the private sector to finance adaptation and resilience in both emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs) and advanced economies. 

Among other findings, the report shows that every dollar a company invests in adaptation can yield a benefit-to-cost ratio between 2:1 and 15:1, and even as much as 50:1. Companies providing adaptation and resilience solutions could be worth nine times their current revenues in the future—and some estimates indicate valuations as much as 77 times current revenues.

Green procurement commitments

Governments are responsible for a significant percentage of total procurement worldwide. For example, the UK government represents 15% of the steel market in the United Kingdom. Construction materials significantly impact carbon emissions and waste; construction, renovation, and demolition generate over 100 billion tonnes of waste worldwide. The use of construction materials currently contributes 9% of all energy-related CO2 emissions. 

Off the back of this impact, the UK, US, Canada, and Germany signed the Green Public Procurement Pledge, a commitment to drive demand for near-zero-emissions steel, cement, and concrete via public procurement. The pledge also commits signatories to develop harmonised emissions accounting standards and definitions for construction-related materials. In Canada, this could reduce the annual energy consumption of cement for buildings by 17% within seven years.

Collaboration is pivotal

The importance of cross-industry collaboration cannot be overstated in the quest to achieve the global target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. It is clear that isolated efforts and a siloed approach will not suffice in addressing such a significant global challenge. The goal demands a more unified and cooperative strategy across various sectors and industries.

In this context, the mobilisation of capital is crucial for facilitating the net-zero transition. Traditional methods of financing such endeavours, which often rely heavily on government funding, are inadequate for the scale of investment required. Saamir Elshihabi, Principal Lead of Energy Transition at COP28, emphasised this point, stating:

“You cannot think about climate finance only from a governmental perspective. If you want to unlock the trillions, you need to have everybody around the table—philanthropies, the banks, the venture capitalist investors. This is how you define a new climate economy.”

What’s next?

COP28 confirmed that we have the tools necessary to improve the sustainability of the built environment—and that buildings must play an active role in meeting Net Zero targets. Organisations like the BuildingToCOP Coalition have encouraged future conferences to continue to prioritise the built environment as both a necessary participant and an urgent climate solution. Looking ahead, Sabrin Rahman, Director of Partnerships for COP28) explained: “Collectively, we had the opportunity to create the blueprint of what we feel should represent a COP of the future, an innovative, multi-stakeholder-led process that really makes real-world impact.”

Chris Joannides
December 14, 2023