It has now been just over 100 days since international leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland to determine a path forward on the climate crisis.
Here, the Green Building Alliance team reflects on what we experienced at COP26 and the opportunities ahead.
Background and Outcomes of COP26
The United Nations has hosted a Conference of Parties – or COP – for almost 30 years as an international summit on climate. The most closely watched COP convening in recent history was COP21 in 2015 where the Paris Agreement was established. According to the COP26 website, it was so important because “for the first time ever, something momentous happened: every country agreed to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees (and aim for 1.5 degrees) in order to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver on these aims.”
In 2021, COP26 was seen as crucial for success towards climate mitigation for several reasons: First, it was a long-anticipated in-person convening since COVID-19 delayed the originally planned 2020 schedule. Second, the United States was back at the table for discussions, as it had stepped away from climate leadership and commitments during the Trump Administration. And finally, countries were meant to update their commitments to the Paris Agreement and their plans for reducing emissions. For those of us in the green building community, COP26 was also critical because the built environment was elevated to the top of the climate agenda for the first time ever.
The United Nations has outlined the outcomes of COP26 and the resulting Glasgow Climate Pact in full, but highlights included an agreement to accelerate action in this “critical decade,” supporting adaptation, and delivering on climate finance. Specific discussions on phasing out fossil fuels fell short of many expectations, but countries ultimately agreed to phase-down coal and to phase-out certain fossil fuel subsidies.
For our part, it was fascinating to experience and witness an atmosphere where world leaders were deciding country commitments while thousands of other attendees forged partnerships and pathways that impact our climate future. We learned about cutting edge research, saw case studies from a variety of countries, and got real-time updates of commitments being made by the government and private sector. One major takeaway for our team was the keen reminder that any commitments decided at the international level would be implemented at the local level, and that is why regional work like that happening in our community is so very important.
And as always, our focus lies in the built environment – the buildings, communities, and cities that impact our quality of life, health, economies and climate. But real change doesn’t happen without people and partnerships. So, as you read our highlights below, you will note that nearly all of them are focused on new or strengthened relationships.
A Regional Coalition
GBA was honored to attend the COP26 climate conference as part of a delegation from the UN Economic Commission for Europe, our partner and leader of the High-Performance Buildings Initiative. Four staff (Jenna, Leslie, Megan, and Chris) attended along with two board members, Noah Shaltes from PJ Dick and Jeffrey McDaniel from Innovation Works.
The Pittsburgh region was well represented with attendees from the City of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the Sister Cities Association of Pittsburgh.
Key Takeaways and Conversations
Our team observed the following key takeaways from COP26:
For the first time, buildings and the built environment were presented as a key solution to addressing climate with associated co-benefits on health, equity, and the economy. There was an entire day dedicated to buildings!
The overall focus was on decarbonization with low and net-zero strategies and commitments presented by cities, countries, businesses, and NGOs.
There were a significant number of public-private partnerships and corporate and industry commitments announced.
One day focused solely on finance with sustainable financing models presented and large commitments for investment from countries, businesses, and philanthropy.
Many sessions included the need for affordable, healthy, and low-energy housing.
The United States made a strong comeback at the international climate stage with many leaders present and a full agenda of events, meetings, and announcements at the U.S. Pavilion.
Pittsburgh received a lot of positive recognition from international partners for the city and region’s efforts to address climate.
While at COP26, GBA’s team had the incredible opportunity to connect with leaders and community members working towards climate solutions. Here is a look back at some of our key conversations at the conference:
GBA’s Jenna Cramer connected with U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry to share the work of the global network of Centers of Excellence to address climate, equity, health, economy, and quality of life.
Jenna ran into an old colleague – sustainability leader and climate activist Felicia Davis – who founded the HBCU Green Fund and has attended COP for the past 20 years.
Jenna connected with Pennsylvania’s own Dr. Rachel Levine, United States Assistant Secretary for Health. Jenna and Dr. Levine discussed the intersection of health and the built environment and GBA’s work towards creating Sustainable Communities.
Jenna moderated a panel at the US Pavilion hosted by the State Department, with a featured keynote by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a discussion with U.S. Mayors and HUD representatives focused on climate action.
Jenna participated in Girls@COP, an event hosted by the City of Glasgow and their partners, by speaking on a panel that highlighted gender equity and climate impacts on women and girls.
The Pittsburgh coalition of attendees was honored to meet U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who made the exciting announcement at the U.S. Pavilion that Pittsburgh would host the next meeting of the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation (see more on this below).
GBA’s team spent time with United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova and Scott Foster, who oversees the sustainable energy division at the UNECE as well as the U.N. High Performance Buildings Initiative.
GBA joined former City of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Grant Ervin at a Cities as Drivers of Change event and an official signing between Glasgow and Pittsburgh to connect the two as sister cities.
Learning, Meeting, and Connecting with International Centers of Excellence on High Performance Building
Signing of New Centers of Excellence on High Performance Building
At COP26, GBA’s team was delighted to celebrate with seven new Centers of Excellence on High Performance Building who signed their MOUs with the UNECE. The ceremony – which was hosted at the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre – offered an exceptional opportunity to gather in-person with many of our sister Centers. Congratulations to Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (Scotland), EnEffect (Bulgaria), South West College (Northern Ireland), passivhausMAINE (Maine), Building Innovation Hub (Washington, D.C.), Sustainable Development Foundation (London), and Ireland.
An Inside Look at Education, Innovation, and Workforce Development in Scotland and Ireland
While at the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, attendees were treated to a fascinating look at major innovations in building products, trainings, and processes. GBA’s team also got to visit two other nearby Centers of Excellence to tour their green building projects and training centers. We reunited with Tomas O’Leary, a leader in Passive House adoption and training across Ireland and beyond. Tomas showed us a training site dedicated to Ireland’s just transition, focused on re-training former peat moss harvesters into high-performance building professionals. Tomas also joined GBA friends Michael Bennett and Barbara Anne Murphy to guide us on a construction tour of the first Passive-built commercial building in Ireland, which will become home to Ireland’s Center of Excellence.
GBA’s team toured the largest Passive House Premier project at our sister Center of Excellence in Northern Ireland, South West College. The building offers an intriguing use type as the facility includes a cooking school. The University’s Barry McCarron is President of Passive House Ireland, and his team also shared details about their trainings and research at the school. GBA will partner with Penn State University to host students from South West College for a high performance building exchange summer camp in Pittsburgh later this year. The connections we continue to build with sister Centers provide us with lessons and inspiration to benchmark our own work back home.
Looking Ahead to Future Opportunities
GBA’s team returned from COP26 with renewed energy for the work ahead. We have always felt a sense of urgency to make a meaningful impact on climate, which continues to grow every year as we approach many critical milestones in 2030. Having the opportunity to connect with colleagues in-person and see up close how the built environment was impacting the overall climate agenda was affirming to the work we’ve committed ourselves to for the past three decades. Here are some specific things we look forward to:
GBA’s work over the last 28 years has aided in establishing Pittsburgh as a strong ecosystem of sustainability and innovation. In 2022, our team will continue to work with sustainable products and materials that support high performance building practices and the region’s equity goals. COP26 made it clear that we need the products, services, materials, and supply chain that supports decarbonization of many sectors, including the built environment.
GBA is excited to serve as the only U.S. partner on an international collaboration with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe to develop a $24M project to improve the energy efficiency of the global building supply chain and its products to deliver high performance buildings. This project is funded through The International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.
In the fall of 2022, the Global Manufacturing and Industrialization Summit will be hosted in Pittsburgh. This is a great opportunity to highlight the region’s innovation and commitment to advanced manufacturing and sustainability!
Clean Energy Ministerial – September 2022
Senator Jennifer Granholm announced at COP26 that the next convening of the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation (CEM-MI) would be hosted in Pittsburgh in September of 2022. GBA has been collaborating with the CEM planning team and our UNECE partners to provide insight for holistically showcasing our region’s sustainable development leadership to global visitors and to inspire the inclusion of buildings and the built environment on the CEM agenda.
Growing and Accelerating Change with the International Centers of Excellence on High Performance Building
In 2022, the team will continue to nurture current partnerships and develop new ones – both online and in-person. Some things we’re looking forward to include:
Assisting UNECE with recruitment of additional Centers of Excellence to build the global network, and welcome new and existing Centers to Pittsburgh this fall
Working with our regional and international partners to establish a collective agenda, priorities, and convening schedule to support sharing best practices, implementing demonstration projects, and building stronger partnerships
Partnering with Penn State University and others to welcome students from Northern Ireland for a summer camp focused on high performance building methods
We so look forward to continuing critical work with our community in Western Pennsylvania, expanding on our region’s sustainability leadership, and connecting more with our global village in the fight against climate change to create a healthy, thriving, and sustainable world for everyone. To learn more about our highlights, read Jenna’s interview with Felicia Davis and check out our construction tour in Ireland on Green Building Bites.