Industry Insights – August 2021: Climate Crisis Code Red

By Jen Heil | September 1, 2021

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was finalised on 6th August 2021, makes for pretty grim reading. Compiled by 234 authors from 65 countries around the world and based on the assessment of 14,000 scientific publications, the AR6 report presents stark data capturing the current state of our climate and its possible future 

Although this report is not exclusively relevant to the construction industry, construction has without doubt been a significant contributor to climate change – and also has the potential to be a big player when it comes to climate action. With this in mind, and with COP26 just around the corner, we’re dedicating this month’s Industry Insights to examining the key takeaways from the latest IPCC report, what it means and what we need to happen next. 

Spotlight on Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis 

The central finding that rings clear throughout the IPCC’s AR6 report is that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years, and that recent changes are rapid, widespread and intensifying. Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, with human activity contributing to many observed changes in weather and climate extremes.  

Concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere are the highest in at least 2 million years. Sea levels are rising at the fastest rate in at least 3,000 years. Arctic sea ice is at its lowest level in at least 1,000 years and glaciers are retreating at a rate unseen in at least 2,000 years. These changes are alarming enough in the abstract, viewed simply as figures on a page, but the real-world consequences of these changes are far-reaching, impacting the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. And these changes will only increase with further warming, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent and more severe. 

Greenhouse gas emissions – particularly CO2 – are the most significant factor in creating these changes. Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in emissions to limit warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, this will be beyond reach. The IPCC sets out the bleak reality of our climate’s future if we do not meet this target. 

Extreme temperature events that occurred on average once every 10 years between 1850 and 1900 are currently 2.8 times more likely to occur. If future warming hits a 1.5°C rise, this increases to 4.1 times more likely to occur, with rises to 2°C and 4°C resulting in 5.6 and 9.4 times increase in likelihood respectively. For 50-year events, the frequency increases even more dramatically from currently being 4.8 times more likely to occur over 1850-1900 trends up to an alarming 39.2 times more likely to occur in the event of a 4°C future warming.  

The IPCC’s interactive atlas models the possible climate futures resulting variously from 1.5°C, 2°C, 3°C and 4°C warming. Future emissions will cause additional warming, and, with every increment of global warming, changes to our climate become more extreme in regional mean temperature, rainfall and soil moisture. The atlas clearly depicts the increasing intensity of these changes and shows that every region will be affected.  

Promises and progress 

We have already seen evidence that climate impacts are “disproportionately burdening developing countries”, with extreme weather events such as droughts leading to consequent drops in agricultural production, which both increases food insecurity and threatens economic stability. In our June edition of Industry Insights, we explored the Climate Change Committee’s latest progress report to parliament and what it revealed about the UK Government’s big promises but lack of sufficient action to achieve them. This progress gap is not only a UK problem and is evident in the significant deficit of climate finance raised by developed countries.  

Article 9 of the Paris Agreement sets out the obligation for developed countries to provide financial resources to assist developing countries in meeting their responsibilities under the Convention. Furthermore, as part of a global effort, it stipulates that developed countries should take the lead in mobilising climate finance from a wide variety of sources. The COP16 Accord defined this further, with developing countries committing to the joint mobilisation of $100 billion (USD) per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries in both mitigation and adaptation. 

Climate finance plays an essential role in ensuring that countries around the world can successfully mitigate against and adapt to the impacts of climate change, and meet the globally agreed target of limiting warming to 2°C at most, and preferably to below 1.5°C. Frustratingly, it is difficult to understand exactly how much progress has been made towards the $100 billion annual target because, despite being agreed 5 years ago, there is yet to be a consensus on what kinds of finance should be counted. There are also huge inconsistencies in reporting, resulting in the over-reporting of climate finance to the order of several billion dollars. The most generous reporting put figures at around $78 billion in 2018 whilst the most pessimistic estimate it to be less than half this amount. Whichever figure is correct, it’s clear the $100 billion target is unlikely to have been met, particularly with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Aside from the question mark around the total amount actually mobilised, there have also been significant criticisms that climate finance is skewed largely towards mitigation, with not enough devoted to adaptation. This is a serious issue as, sadly, some climate changes are now irreversible and will continue regardless of future warming, with developing countries most likely to feel the brunt of their effects. 

How do we respond? 

The climate we experience in our future is entirely dependent on the decisions and actions we take right now – as individuals, businesses, communities and governments. It is essential that we make immediate and radical changes to limit our emissions as far and as quickly as possible and that we invest sufficiently in adaptation measures. 

As implementation of the Paris Agreement begins its first 5-year cycle, the focus must be on ensuring a major collective increase of climate finance to support strong and green recovery packages and greater ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). We must look to exceed the $100 billion per year target in 2021 and to scale up international public finance to accelerate progress towards net zero carbon and climate-resilience. The 2020 report from the Independent Expert Group on Climate Finance states that the $100 billion target “needs to be seen as a floor and not as a ceiling”. 2021 is a crucial year in which we need to sustain trust between developed and developing countries, and reach a renewed consensus about the necessary climate action.  

COP26 marks a key milestone along the Paris Agreement timeline and offers an opportunity for participant countries to ramp up their commitment to climate action. The goals for the conference are summarised as: 

  1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach by accelerating the phase-out of coal, curtailing deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables. 
  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats by preserving and restoring eco-systems, in addition to building defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure. 
  3. Mobilise finance by making good on the promise to collectively generate $100 billion per year.
  4. Work together to deliver by finalising the Paris Rulebook (the detailed rules that make the Paris Agreement operational) and accelerating collaborative action between governments, businesses and civil society. 

We would hope to see progress beyond these goals, particularly in the area of climate finance, as the time has passed for lofty target setting and the need for decisive action is ever more pressing. Developed countries have continued to avoid fundamental accountability issues because of ambiguous technicalities in reporting standards. In order to meet the COP26 goal around mobilising finance, clear rules must first be agreed about what counts as climate finance along with a defined, strategic methodology for reporting.  

We also believe that more needs to be done around climate education, which is mandated under Article 6 of the Convention. This is vital not just to enable individuals to make informed choices around their personal actions and to understand the fragile reality of our climate, but also to empower them to hold corporations and governments to account.  

How can the construction industry contribute? 

The findings in the IPCC report seem pretty bleak and, given the under-delivery of targets at a global level to date, it’s easy to feel that there is little we can do as individuals and businesses. But it’s important to recognise where we do have power and to take action, however small, wherever we can. 

In terms of construction activity, some simple things might include: 

  • Actively support and utilise construction approaches that prioritise retrofitting and fabric first. Increase understanding within your organisation about the benefits of these approaches and pass that understanding on to clients and customers.  
  • Minimise material and water waste and make use of resources such as the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition to explore more sustainable approaches to construction. 

As a business or individual: 

Finally, find opportunities to engage with these issues – for example by joining in with #TogetherForOurPlanet conversations online and within your organisation – and keep climate action at the top of the agenda. It’s time to fight for the future.  


Here at Smith Goodfellow, we have launched an impact assessment and reporting process which is currently underway. This will help us better understand our current environmental and social impact and take practical steps to improve our business practices and impact. We will be reporting updates through our website and social media, and our first report is due to launch at the beginning of November, prior to COP26. Follow us and subscribe to our newsletter below to keep up to date with our progress.

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