COP28 – key takeaways and where the built environment goes next

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As COP28 closed in Dubai, Robert Spencer, global head of ESG advisory services at AECOM and vice-chair of FIDIC’s sustainable development committee, who attended the event, shared his key observations and the implications for the built environment.

As the sun sets on another COP there is palpable energy, but also urgency, in the air. The historic agreement to transition away from fossil fuels in the final text of the conference agreement rounded off what was a dynamic conference, beginning with a strong funding pledge for the loss and damage mechanism.

From commitments to triple renewables capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030 to $1bn mobilised for methane reduction efforts, there is much to be hopeful about as a result of this COP. But critically, there is still much to be done.

Time for systemic change

There’s been a noticeable shift toward systemic and integrated change, with cross-sectoral collaboration coming to the fore. At COP26, we saw some industries moving ahead in disparate directions with one-off initiatives. The aviation industry’s efforts, for example, were fragmented in Glasgow with discussions of pilot approaches for sustainable aviation fuel. At COP28, conversely, aviation had a significantly more integrated, collaborative approach with net zero plans, for example around deployment of sustainable aviation fuel, that span the industry.

We’re seeing this trend in the ports and shipping industry as well, where they’re on a journey to electrify their port systems and are working together to explore hybrid fuel systems for international shipping. While still early days, the Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter aims to bring the entire sector together for the first time to negotiate a strategy for reducing emissions. Going forward, alliances, industry-wide efforts and large-scale change, will steer acceleration toward net zero.

Nature takes centre stage

The link between climate change and nature is clear and we’ve seen a significant increase in funding for nature programmes. Among those announced at the conference was US$100m from the Bezos Fund for the new ocean reserve in the South Pacific. The UN has reported 2022 investment in nature-based solutions at $154bn. This will need to double by 2025 and triple by 2030 to meet global biodiversity commitments agreed at the first Montreal Climate Summit.

As such, much attention is being paid to financing methods that de-risk projects implementing nature-based solutions (NBS). One approach we see gaining traction is biodiversity credits. Along with carbon credits, they can help to encourage investment in infrastructure utilising NBS, which can complement or even replace traditional infrastructure in some instances. The recently launched FIDIC-WWF Playbook for Nature-positive Infrastructure Development can support this implementation as we look to build more resilient, sustainable, livable cities and neighbourhoods that have nature flourishing within.

Infrastructure transition gets much needed structure

Initiatives like the Buildings Breakthrough, launched by the governments of France and Morocco with the UN Environment Programme, highlight the need for a more structured approach to the infrastructure sector’s net zero transition.

Initially raised at COP26, Dubai saw the idea come to fruition as 27 countries pledged their commitment to making near- and net zero emission buildings the norm by 2030. This relates to new buildings but includes a real focus on retrofitting our existing building stock as well.

In 2022, the buildings and construction sector accounted for 34% of all energy-related CO2 emissions. Global investment in the sector has risen almost 55% from $156bn in 2015 to $285bn in 2022. While we’re not currently on track to reach decarbonisation goals, the breakthrough initiative’s efforts to bolster international collaboration are essential if we are to follow our 1.5C north star. A coalition will conduct annual assessments of global progress and the first-ever Buildings and Climate Global Forum will be held in March 2024 to maintain momentum.

Where and what next?

Following a significant amount of discussion, deliberating, launching, planning and pledging, there’s a tremendous amount of work to do to move us from ambition to action. We must capitalise on and continue to talk about these themes well beyond COP28, but most importantly, we must take steps to operationalise.

At the start, every organisation needs to build a tailored plan for transformation. Developing this should involve an advisor with the right technical ability – knowledge of the increasingly multifaceted energy infrastructure landscape, plus implementation experience of new and coming technologies – to build a long-term roadmap. Focusing on the roadmap’s smaller and more affordable initiatives first will bring early results to help build and sustain the progress set in motion in Dubai.

Click here to find out more about COP28 from the event website.