Architecture “one of the least well-represented businesses” in Race to Zero

Architects are failing to engage with the UN’s drive to reduce carbon emissions with none of the 50 largest firms signed up to its Race to Zero campaign, according to Nigel Topping, the UN’s champion for the upcoming COP26 climate conference.


This is despite the fact that the built environment contributes around 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Architecture is one of the least well-represented businesses in the Race to Zero,” Topping told Dezeen, referring to the United Nations initiative to get companies to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Some smaller practices including UK firms Hudson Architects and Paul Vick and US firms Farr Associates and Gelfand Partners Architects signed up, along with multi-disciplinary firms including Arup and AECOM.

But Topping said: “By revenue, globally, we don’t think that any of the top 50 standalone architectural practices are in the Race to Zero. We are working hard to change this so that when we reach COP26 we can really show ambition within the sector.”

Architects in a “unique and important position” to reduce carbon emissions

Architects and designers are in a “unique and important position” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to the influence they can have on buildings and products, Topping said.

“Designers and architects making choices to specify circular, low-carbon and innovative materials on their projects can also act as a huge demand signal to industry, product manufacturers and material producers,” Topping told Dezeen in an email interview.

“They are at the forefront of some of the world’s most exciting and creative projects, which means they’re in a unique and important position to influence their clients and collaborators whilst taking action now to make choices to put reductions in carbon emissions at the heart of all their design decisions.”

Race to Zero is trying to sign up 20 per cent of companies in each sector, which is considered the amount needed to create a “tipping point” that will cause others to follow.

But architects are dragging their heels. “We want to quickly get to a point at which over 20 per cent of architects globally are part of the Race to Zero,” he said.

“After joining the Race to Zero and showing that their own house is in order, a natural role for designers and architects to play is one of credible advocacy and influence.”

“Action ahead of policy is absolutely crucial”

Signing up to the Race to Zero commits companies to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius.

Net-zero means that a business, organisation, city or region does not add any greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve this, they must reduce emissions as far as they can and offset the rest using schemes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Topping was appointed last year by UK prime minister Boris Johnson to lead preparations for the COP26 climate conference, which the UK is hosting in November.

He is former CEO of We Mean Business, a coalition of businesses tackling climate change.

In the interview, conducted as part of Dezeen’s carbon revolution project, Topping said that architects need to act now to ensure that projects coming on stream over the next decade are sufficiently low-carbon.

“Some of the largest buildings and infrastructure that designers are pondering now may not be constructed until 2030, by which point we will have halved greenhouse gas emissions and set ourselves on the path to net zero in the 2040s,” he said.

“The lag between design and construction in the sector means that decisions being made today run the real risk of locking in emissions as businesses wait for policy to come in. That’s why action ahead of policy is absolutely crucial.”

Dedicated day to the built environment at COP26

The built environment’s contribution to global warming will be discussed at a dedicated day at the COP26 climate conference in November.

“The brilliant news is that at COP26 there will be a dedicated Cities, Regions & Built Environment Theme Day,” Topping said.

“We want the built environment to be recognised as a critical sector for unlocking the goals of the Paris Agreement,” he added, referring to the 2015 agreement that legally binds signatories to action that will limit climate change at 1.5 degrees Celcius or lower.

COP26, or Conference of the Parties, is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. It is set to take place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow.

Initiatives from the architecture sector relating to the conference include a Built Environment Summit at the RIBA and a UK Built Environment Virtual Pavilion supported by over 100 organisations.

Here is a transcript of the interview with Topping:

Marcus Fairs: Please briefly explain who you are and your role in Race to Zero and Cop26.

Nigel Topping: I was appointed by the UK government to the United Nations role of High-Level Champion for Climate Action for the COP26 climate summit, which the UK is hosting in Glasgow this November. I’m working in partnership with Gonzalo Muñoz, the High-Level Champion appointed by the Chilean government, which hosted the 2019 COP25 summit.

Our role as climate champions is to engage with the businesses, investors, cities, regions and others that have a stake in global climate negotiations and a role in helping the world achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals but who have no seat at the COP negotiating tables.

Through the UN Race to Zero campaign, which launched a year ago, we are mobilising businesses, investors, cities and regions to commit to reaching net-zero emissions in the 2040s and setting out the credible plans and near-term targets needed to get there.

At the same time, the sibling UN Race to Resilience campaign, launched this year, is shoring up commitments from businesses, investors, local governments and others to build resilience within this decade for the four billion people already experiencing impacts of the climate crisis.

We know that some level of climate change is already baked into our future – we feel it in the form of floods, droughts, extreme temperatures, wildfires, pandemics and more. The private sector and local governments have the opportunity to help ensure that people, communities and the global economy don’t just survive these impacts but thrive in spite of them.

Marcus Fairs: What is Race to Zero?

Nigel Topping: The Race to Zero is a UN-backed umbrella campaign for commitments to net-zero emissions before 2050 from leading networks and initiatives. Crucially, these commitments must meet the campaign’s minimum criteria for ensuring that the commitments are robust and credible before they join – for example including direct and indirect emissions in their reduction targets, and prioritising real emission cuts over offsetting measures.

The campaign is an important part of multilateral efforts to strengthen climate action. These businesses, investors, cities and regions have the power to drive even faster and wider action in the 2020s and the long-term. They’re driving an “ambition loop”: their ambition spurs national governments to set higher targets and more enabling policies, which then encourages businesses, investors and local governments to go even farther, and so on.

More than 4,500 non-state actors from over 92 countries have now committed to take the first necessary step towards net zero emissions: halving their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That’s massive, especially considering that these businesses, investors, cities and regions are incorporating these goals into their plans for recovering from Covid-19.

Marcus Fairs: What is net-zero? Many people find the term confusing.

Nigel Topping: The term “net-zero” has entered the mainstream lexicon in the past two years, which is an incredible feat, especially in the midst of the health and economic crisis of Covid-19. The biggest economies, investors and businesses in the world are already aiming for net-zero, and many well before 2050. So if you’re not readying your country, investment portfolio or business strategy for a resilient net-zero world, then you’ll soon find yourself juggling stranded assets and battling ever-worsening impacts.

But not all net-zero commitments are equal – and the more mainstream it becomes, the more important it is to recognise what makes a credible, ambitious commitment and what doesn’t.

Setting your end destination is just the first important step in the transformation. Once you know where you’re going, you have to plot the route and begin moving. We need to follow what science says will give us our best chance of reaching net-zero before 2050, which is halving greenhouse gas emissions between 2020 and 2030 and radically regenerating nature at the same time.

Within a year of joining the Race to Zero, members must set their interim targets for getting to net-zero, including a fair share for halving emissions by 2030. They must also publicly report their progress every year, which helps us evaluate what is and is not working and ratchet up our targets. They must take the full spectrum of direct and indirect emissions into account and prioritise real cuts over offsets.

Marcus Fairs: Dezeen’s readers are architects and designers. How important are they in the Race to Zero?

Nigel Topping: Architects and designers help clients make decisions on how their buildings and products will be made. They are at the forefront of some of the world’s most exciting and creative projects, which means they’re in a unique and important position to influence their clients and collaborators whilst taking action now to make choices to put reductions in carbon emissions at the heart of all their design decisions.

Designers and architects making choices to specify circular, low-carbon and innovative materials on their projects can also act as a huge demand signal to industry, product manufacturers and material producers.

It is this cross-discipline collaboration across all stakeholders that is really crucial for unlocking systems transformation. If we can get architects speaking with engineers, with contractor and materials suppliers and clients and project financiers – and if all of these parts of a historically fragmented supply chain can demonstrate ambitious action – they will send a resounding demand signal to the industry, and crucially to policymakers, for change towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Marcus Fairs: How can they get involved?

Nigel Topping: We want to quickly get to a point at which over 20 per cent of architects globally are part of the Race to Zero. This is the breakthrough point that begins to unlock exponential systems change. At the moment, architecture is one of the least well-represented businesses in the Race to Zero.

By revenue, globally, we don’t think that any of the top 50 standalone architectural practices are in the Race to Zero. We are working hard to change this so that when we reach COP26 we can really show ambition within the sector.

Companies can join the Race to Zero through partner initiatives and agree to follow the campaign’s criteria. First, they must pledge to reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible and before mid-century at the latest. Within a year of joining, they must set an interim target that represents their fair share of halving global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and take immediate and meaningful action towards achieving zero emissions. And they must publish progress reports every year.

Most large companies join the Race to Zero through Business Ambition for 1.5 degrees Celsius run by the Science Based Targets Initiative.

Marcus Fairs: What more could they be doing besides signing up to Race to Zero?

Nigel Topping: After joining the Race to Zero and showing that their own house is in order, a natural role for designers and architects to play is one of credible advocacy and influence. These creative individuals will be able to find exciting ways to engage and help their clients assess their own portfolios and their own climate strategies, in turn taking tangible steps towards real project change.

On building projects and products that your readers are involved in developing, the first question to ask is: what are the carbon emissions associated with your building or product? That is the critical first step because by assessing the life-cycle carbon emissions of something you are creating, you unlock the data that can be used to influence decisions and others in the supply chain.

Marcus Fairs: The built environment produces an estimated 40 per cent of global emissions. What does the construction sector need to do to address this? Is it doing enough?

Nigel Topping: The construction industry must take collective responsibility to reduce emissions and play its part in creating a sustainable, net-zero and resilient future for everyone, everywhere.

Some of the largest buildings and infrastructure that designers are pondering now may not be constructed until 2030, by which point we will have halved greenhouse gas emissions and set ourselves on the path to net zero in the 2040s. The lag between design and construction in the sector means that decisions being made today run the real risk of locking in emissions as businesses wait for policy to come in. That’s why action ahead of policy is absolutely crucial.

Radical collaboration will help unlock this sector’s potential. There are some fantastic examples of companies in the Race to Zero such as Skanska, which is setting up partnerships across the supply chain specifically for the purpose of innovation. Transparency across the project team, from finance to design to construction, will enable climate-first decisions to be made. Often cities can act as a catalyst in bringing this together.

Marcus Fairs: How will architecture, design and the built environment feature at Cop26? It’s been hard for us to find out how high up the agenda it is and how it will be discussed. Some people in the sector are concerned it will be neglected.

Nigel Topping: The brilliant news is that at COP26 there will be a dedicated Cities, Regions & Built Environment Theme Day. We want the built environment to be recognised as a critical sector for unlocking the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The built environment naturally is able to speak to the four UNFCCC COP pillars – mitigation, adaptation, collaboration and finance and showcase action.

We will seek to increase ambition by rallying businesses, cities, regions and others to take rigorous and immediate action to halve emissions by 2030 and showcase where projects are taking steps to do this.

We will also seek to drive systems change by delivering our Race to Zero breakthroughs and increasing solutions-oriented collaboration.

Marcus Fairs: What do you hope the outcome of Cop26 will be?

Nigel Topping: The Covid-19 crisis has made clear to us that our public health is inextricably linked to the health of the economy and of the planet. COP26 is an opportunity to bring national and local governments, the private sector and civil society together behind a healthy, resilient recovery from this pandemic that puts us firmly on the path to a zero-emissions transformation.

The COP26 will be the capstone in a year of global momentum towards greater climate action – from the tidal wave of businesses, investors, local governments and countries committing to net zero and raising their targets for 2030, to a step up in commitments to reverse the loss of biodiversity and conserve nature – including from the G7 economies.

We can’t stem climate change or build resilience to its impacts without regenerating nature, and we can’t reverse the biodiversity loss without slashing emissions and building climate resilience. COP26 is a moment to bring these crises together, and overcome them together.


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Carbon revolution

This article is part of Dezeen’s carbon revolution series, which explores how this miracle material could be removed from the atmosphere and put to use on earth. Read all the content at: www.dezeen.com/carbon.

The sky photograph used in the carbon revolution graphic is by Taylor van Riper via Unsplash.