COMMENT | Building a sustainable future post COP26

After years of preparation and build-up, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference has drawn to a close. After 13 days of briefings, Joseph Meredith of TLT LLP analyses the finite details of the event.

Many are disappointed with the somewhat conservative terms of the final agreement. This was perhaps predictable; while there is a widely recognised common interest in minimising global warming, a delicate balance of diverse and competing political priorities also needed to be juggled. Major factors such as differing stages of development of global nations, and the varying levels of poverty within them made significant compromise inevitable.

Although day twelve of the conference was devoted to cities, regions and the built environment, there were limited announcements in respect of property issues and few tangible commitments directly impacting the UK. While some may have been disappointed at this, especially given buildings are one of the biggest sources of emissions in the UK, it is hardly surprising. COP26 was always about the global outlook.

Individual governments must now work out the detail of how their respective countries meet the commitments made. For the UK, this will involve building upon the progress made through initiatives such as the Minimum Energy Efficiency Regulations. In addition, the country is working to understand and implement the proposals laid out in several government strategies released in recent months, including the Net Zero Strategy and the Heat and Buildings Strategy.

So, while it may have initially seemed disheartening that nothing new was announced at COP26, the industry is likely grateful for the space to consider how to address the raft of challenges already laid out.

Wednesday 3 November was all about finance – another big factor in reducing the environmental impact of our buildings. Again, the announcements were largely global and aspirational in their outlook. There were, however, meaningful commitments from the UK and financial institutions to align the financial services sector with the Paris Agreement and net zero targets. As a result, one would hope to see more stimulus from government in the coming year to incentivise and unlock more funding for green improvements by property owners and occupiers, both residential and commercial.

Though some of the commitments from COP26 may seem light on detail, there were significant positive outcomes. Many see COP26 as a success, not just for what’s being announced now, but for the path it sets the global community on. Agreements reached to revisit emissions-cutting plans again next year, together with commitments to put climate at the heart of international education curricula, each suggest a legacy for COP26 as a significant milestone on a longer process towards positive change.

It’s also extremely encouraging to have seen so many organisations coming together over the last couple of weeks to make global pledges. Collaboration will continue to be key as we move forward in the fight against climate change. Joint declarations from the USA and China, despite their other differences, show a significant and growing consensus. Moving from the issue itself to an agreed method to address it is clearly no small task, but we can fully expect the collective will to act will result in tangible developments, slow though they may sometimes seem.

Over the months and years to come, the UK needs to harness the will to make positive change that was demonstrated at COP26. The major challenge will be getting the blend of measures right, with regulation complemented by incentives to keep the public and private sectors, businesses and individuals, moving in the right direction. Many companies point to business rates as a key area in need of attention and have pushed for a drastic overhaul for a host of reasons. If and when that nettle is grasped, the hope and expectation is that sustainability will be a key pillar of any new system, with the tax burden reduced for those prioritising sustainability to truly incentivise and support improvements.

Whatever approach is taken, we can inevitably expect the response to COP26 and its themes to have a significant impact on how we live our lives, including how we buy, sell, let, manage and use property. With that in mind, businesses should already be taking proactive steps to improve sustainability and reduce their environmental impact where possible. This way, companies can ensure they are well placed in advance of any mandatory changes and therefore better able to navigate these when the time comes.

  • Joseph Meredith is legal director at UK law firm, TLT LLP


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