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COP21: The lowdown

Wind farm
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Five key questions on the Paris climate summit answered

Architecture on Trial - climate change

What is the purpose of COP21?

COP21 is shorthand for The 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The framework was originally adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and led to the 1995 Kyoto Protocol, which legally binds developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. COP21, which is meeting in Paris from today (30 November) to 11 December, aims to produce a new plan – this time including developing countries - to replace the Kyoto agreement when it runs out in 2020.

What could it achieve?

The 195 convention signatories will vote on the text of a new agreement aimed at keeping global warming below an agreed temperature rise. However, the timescale and level of rise is still to be agreed. All participating governments will also submit ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ which will outline how they will reduce their emissions to a level they are happy with.

What is the likelihood of success?

The experience of 2009’s COP15 held in Copenhagen, which failed to reach agreement on a universal agreement, demonstrated the difficulty in negotiating emission reduction targets. The key to achieving agreement will be to achieve wording that addresses the costs of implementation in a way that satisfies both developed and developing countries. In an article on the BusinessGreen website Anthony Hobley, chief executive of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, says that adopting a rigid legally binding agreement could be counterproductive. ‘It is not unrealistic to contemplate that events and technological developments could change the climate change dynamic quickly,’ he says. ‘When that happens we do not want to be locked into a legally binding arrangement which lacks the necessary ambition.’

What is the role of buildings in creating carbon emissions?

Buildings are not specifically mentioned in the draft agreement text, but clearly any agreement to reduce emissions will require the built environment industry to play a huge role. Buildings account for a third of global greenhouse gasses, while commercial and residential buildings make up 40 per cent of the world’s energy consumption. In addition, the property sector’s importance within the global financial system could help it achieve positive action on investment decisions concerning climate change. Sean Tompkins, chief executive of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), says: ‘We are living on a planet where our population is heading to 9 billion where 66 per cent of our future population will live in cities, where land and real estate will account for 70 per cent of the world’s wealth. That brings an incredible level of responsibility into the built environment both ensuring that the way we deal with urbanisation is in a sustainable way that maximises the use of our limited resources but also recognising that the built environment is a significant underpin into the financial ecosystem of the world.’

How are built environment organisations contributing to the debate around COP21?

For the first time at a COP, on 3 December a ‘Buildings Day’ has been organised. At a special event, speakers will discuss the role of buildings in helping fight climate change. The buildings day will also feature the launch of an international ‘Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction’ aimed at increasing collaboration between gathering countries, cities and public and private organizations. Signatories already include RICS, The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leadership Group and the World Green Building Council. The UK Green Building Council has also been asking its member companies to make ‘climate pledges’ ahead of COP on an online wall. In addition, the Architects’ Council of Europe (ACE), the International Union of Architects (UIA), the National Council of the Order of French Architects (CNOA), and the International Council of French Architects (CIAF) will today (30 November) attend a meeting entitled ‘Architecture, the Climate of the Future’ where they will present a Manifesto for Responsible Architecture. It concludes: ‘To live better together tomorrow, we - architects of the world - call for the implementation of decisive policies to stop the uncontrolled growth of cities, to eradicate the injustice related to the allocation of resources, to slow down climate exodus, to anticipate exposure to natural or industrial risks and to put an end to the depletion of natural resources across the planet.’ The RIBA has sent a representative to today’s ‘Architecture, the Climate of the Future’ meeting - Lynne Sullivan, the co-founder of design studio sustainableBYdesign.

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