The journey to COP26: was it enough?

4 min read

COP26 was heralded as the most important climate event of our time and with proceedings now over, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the potential impact of such a landmark occasion. What will the conference mean for the built environment and how can we as an industry make a meaningful difference within our sphere of influence?

Across COP’s two weeks, the message was stronger, the global presence was greater, and calls for change were louder. Despite one last-minute, high-profile stumbling block, the conference’s headline agreement decreed that countries will reconvene next year to commit to more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030. 

Reaching a deal was always going to be a matter of balancing the demands of climate-vulnerable nations, big industrial powers, and those countries more reliant on fossil fuels to lift their economies. But there seems to be a growing acceptance that responsibility does sit with us all and that every action, however small, is a step in the right direction.

The 26th summit was also the very first time that the UN's annual climate conference specifically addressed carbon emissions from buildings. Our final article in the journey to COP26 series reflects on the agreements made that look most likely to affect our industry; from use of coal to deforestation and future funding.

Our use of coal

Coal use currently generates 40% of annual CO2 emissions and COP26 saw more than 40 countries - including major coal-users Poland, Vietnam and Chile - agree to shift away from burning coal. Though a ‘phase down’, rather than ‘phase out’ was agreed to, the Glasgow Climate Pact is the first ever climate deal to explicitly plan to reduce coal use. 

As corporate leaders, we have a responsibility to source sustainably; that means making the choice to source supplies (from coal to steel and renewable energy) from manufacturers (and countries) that abide by the new measures. Not every country is at the same stage though and global businesses must take this into account. 

Deforestation and diesel

Leaders from more than 100 world countries, representing about 85% of the world's forests, vowed to end deforestation by 2030. While the built environment is less of a contributor to deforestation than say, mining and agriculture, our industry still has a role to play in the solution – particularly by specifying sustainable finishing materials or FSC certified timber. Sustainable timber is harvested responsibly from well-managed forests that are continuously replenished and ensure that there is no damage to the surrounding environment. 

Correctly sourcing diesel alternatives is another way to ensure that as built environment leaders we limit our impacts on forests. HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) is now more commonly available as a lower carbon diesel alternative, and is made from vegetable crops (e.g. sunflowers and rapeseed).

 While it presents impressive carbon savings and cleaner emissions from vehicles and site plant, it is extremely important to ensure that forests have not been destroyed to create the crops. We require our suppliers to hold the International Sustainability Carbon Certification (ISCC) global standard and to have signed the UK Government’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). Our policies also now ban the use of diesel generators. 

Electric vehicles 

The UK Government had stated prior to COP26 that it intended to gather global support around its own commitments; ending new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030 and new petrol and diesel heavy goods vehicle (HGV) sales by 2040.

This commitment took shape with a new agreement, signed by more than 30 countries and dozens of businesses, and including both those that manufacture vehicles and those that operate fleets. The declaration states that, in keeping with a net-zero world by 2050, all new vehicle sales should be zero-emission by 2035 in leading markets. There is a 2040 deadline for all other markets.

The world’s three largest car markets, the US, Germany and China, have not signed the declaration at this stage, but more positively, businesses, cities and regions in these geographies have. There was also the launch of a separate ‘Count Us In Citizens’ Declaration’, calling on world leaders to make sure that only new zero-emission vehicles are sold in the bus space by 2030, followed by light-duty vehicles in 2035 and heavy-duty vehicles in 2035.


The Glasgow climate agreement pledged to increase the funding available (an estimated $96bn a year by 2022) to help countries in need manage the effects of climate change and switch to clean energy. Additionally, some 450 financial organisations, who between them are responsible for $130tns of investment, agreed to back renewable energy, and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries. 

Within our industry, all businesses need to be ready to meet ESG investor requirements– or run the risk of quickly limiting opportunities to secure financial backing. Happily, we are already seeing a radical change in the outlook of our clients; from their headline ambitions to investment in internal capacity building to evolution of their products and services. 

Towards the future

Every country and every economy has a unique challenge on its hands. While we should not dismiss the positive outcomes of activism or in pushing for further, more significant measures, it should never come at the cost of inaction. Yes, some of the biggest polluters have not pledged as comprehensively as we may have liked. But by focusing on the negatives, missed opportunities or unmet expectations, we can distract ourselves from taking direct action and divert energy to the wrong places.

It’s no secret that the route to a secure and sustainable world is through its people. Each individual forms an integral part of the whole - meaning we’re all just one decision away from making real change. As an individual, that means focusing on what we can directly control within our own sphere of influence – what products we buy, what we eat, what we invest in, how we travel and who we vote for.  As a corporate leader, that means making clear, bold commitments and empowering all our people and partners to deliver them.

COP26 aimed to bring together decision-makers from across the globe to push the climate agenda forward – and in that sense, the event achieved what it set out to do. The spotlight on climate change has never been stronger, with global awareness of the challenge and the sacrifices that must be made to address it, at an all-time high. As such, there’s no doubt that COP26 has been a catalyst for conversation. However, time will tell whether COP will inspire our industry and the wider public alike to forge a better future.