COP26 – An Architect’s View

COP26 – An Architect’s View

Catriona Hill’s observations from an illuminating, inspiring and eye-opening few days in Glasgow at COP26.

Last week I had the good fortune to participate in the 26th Conference of the Parties which has brought 197 countries to Glasgow to discuss, and hopefully agree, how to reduce climate change. I attended as a RIAS representative and joined 25,000 other delegates, at the temporary UN city, which has been built around the SSEC.

Before I begin to unfold the detail of the conference, I must share the wonders of the architecture. The Hydro, Armadillo and SSEC are fairly familiar features on the banks of the Clyde but where did the massive plenary halls, complex of meeting rooms, fields of open plan desking and miles upon miles of carpeted circulation, punctuated by well-position breakout space, come from?

It seems that the mega marquee is the answer and I can’t really find fault – we were conveniently accommodated and, thanks to IKEA, who appear to have moved in as UN sponsor of the world, comfortably recumbent for the duration. Provided that this flat pack city is all appropriately dismantled and efficiently reused, the circus will leave town at the end of next week and there should be no trace left…. I hope.So back to the conference. What an incredible event. Unsure of what to expect and unclear of my role, or, indeed, anyone else’s role at the summit, I took an inquisitive approach and worked up a healthy step count striding as fast as heels allowed.

The conference was organised into themed days, each exploring different aspects of climate change. I attended for Earth Day, Finance Day and Youth & Public Empowerment Day (or Greta day as its since been reported)

The plenary halls and meeting rooms accommodated the heavier business events with peripheral debates and discussions held in the delegation pavilions. Familiar faces were everywhere and, as I bounced off Rishi Sunak into the path of David Attenborough I had to remind myself that financing the mitigation measures is as important as raising awareness. All of a sudden the money conversations became interesting. I have to give a shout-out for the Minister of Finance for Finland, Annika Saarikko who gave the most comprehensive, no-nonsense, presentation about funding the green transition and reaching net zero in the built environment.  For her, collaboration is the corner stone which she believes depends on rethinking economic policy. 

The unquestionable highlight of my three day emersion was Al Gore’s address on Friday afternoon. One hour fifteen minutes of spectacular oration with no pause for breath and a painful and graphic presentation demonstrating that the climate crisis is getting worse ‘faster than we are yet implementing solutions’. If you haven’t heard him speak before he explains, with no room for doubt, that we are treating the thin shell of our atmosphere as an open sewer putting ‘162 million tonnes of man-made heat-trapping global warming pollution into the sky every single day’. The main component is carbon and the biggest emitter is fossil fuel.

The net effect is temperature increase and to illustrate what this actually means he explains that for every 1degree rise in temperature, the capacity of water held in our atmosphere increases by 7%. Increased humidity in the atmosphere means that some parts of the world are being starved of water, which is evaporating and not being replaced, whilst other areas are being inundated and the consequences are catastrophic for both. ‘Atmospheric Rivers’, twice the size of the Amazon, are flowing through our atmosphere and when critical mass is reached a rain bomb of epic proportion is released. Graphic and horrific films were shown, one after the other, demonstrating the impact. We witnessed an entire village, Alta, in Norway sliding into a fjord, a mud slide in China destroying a town, and, closer to home, the devastating and recent spectacle of Dumfries submerged under an impromptu loch.

Set that against Oman which recently experienced a 48-hour period when the temperature did not drop below 41.6degrees. To give some context, a human cannot exist, unprotected, for more than two hours in temperatures above 42degrees. Four countries in the equatorial dead zone have now experienced temperatures above 50degrees. Madagascar is currently enduring complete crop failure – the first ever reported to be entirely caused by global warming. Hunger is driving people to live on raw cactus and insects. The land has become infertile through drought. People and livestock are dying at alarming rate.

So what can we do?

Quite simply, we need to reduce carbon emission. We need to reduce single use plastic consumption.  We need to stop being wasteful and stop spewing unnecessary carbon into the atmosphere. Renewable technologies must replace fossil fuel. We must improve energy efficiency.

Amongst a range of solutions, solar and wind power are hailed as the saviours, the replacement for fossil fuels – and they are – provided that they located in the right place. The solutions need to be contextual. We need to adopt the right technology in the right place and this is where the scientists and the designers need to step up to the mark. There is no one solution to fit all problems. We need to analyse, consider and apply.

Architects have a critical role in this process. We have the tools. We just need to deploy them correctly…. The race is on!