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What COP21 means for the built environment

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The United Nations Climate Change Conference also known as COP21 in Paris saw a new worldwide greenhouse gas emissions agreement consensus reached by 196 parties (consisting of 195 States and one regional economic integration organisation), which should come into force in January 2020. The agreement needs to be signed and ratified by at least 55 countries, accounting for 55% of global emissions to be enforced.

C Birch ColourChris Birch, Director of Sustainability and Andrew Moore, Principal Sustainability Consultant, comment on what this means for the UK construction industry.

The new treaty will require global warming to be limited to a 2oC limit compared to pre-industrial warming levels, with an aim for a 1.5oC limit, if possible. This will mean each signatory country must contribute to cutting global greenhouse emissions and publish progress reviews every five years, beginning in 2023, and define Intended Nationally Defined Contributions (INDCs) to cut emissions which will be monitored and updated over time to help drive further greenhouse gas reductions. 

Interestingly there is no mention of zero carbon or an explicit plan to phase out fossil fuels and it remains to be seen how policy and legislation will be developed to fulfil the promises set out in the agreement. Achieving the 1.5oC aim may require zero emissions by 2030-2050.

The UK was the first country in the world to introduce legally binding legislation to tackle climate change but, since the election in May last year, the Conservative government has made a U-turn on numerous policies that have been central to sustainable building design and construction practices. These include removal of renewable energy incentives, zero carbon buildings targets and the Code for Sustainable Homes, to name but a few. However at the same time they will be implementing the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS), (also known as the Minimum Energy Efficient Standards (MEES)) for the private rental sector which makes it unlawful to let properties with an EPC of ‘F’ or worse, to be enforced from April 2018.

One key driver the UK construction market needs is a long-term and clear policy strategy, for both energy generation and energy consumers. The ambitious targets will be difficult to achieve without certainty needed to drive investment, and policy changes so far have affected the industry’s ability to innovate and get ahead of the game. Perhaps the worldwide coverage of the COP21 agreement will encourage the construction industry to continue as a global leader despite the recent dilution of policy.

One thing is certain however, climate change is back on the agenda globally and therefore should be firmly placed on the ‘risk registers’ of the world’s corporate institutions for the foreseeable future. We expect it will become an integral part of a company’s strategy and one in which the UK construction industry will play an important part. Future developments and building design will increasingly reflect how to meet carbon targets as new legislation comes into play and future proofing of buildings to mitigate the effects of climate change will become more prominent to enable owners to avoid obsolescence risk. Hilson Moran will continue to contribute towards the global and national carbon reduction targets through best practice sustainable design for its clients.


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