COP26 and structural engineering

Author: Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action, IStructE

Date published

15 November 2021

COP26 and structural engineering
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COP26 and structural engineering

Date published

Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action, IStructE

Date published

15 November 2021


Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action, IStructE

Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action at IStructE discusses what the outcomes of COP26 mean for the built environment.

After two weeks of promises, politics and protests, COP26 finished with a marathon of negotiations to finalise the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact – which has now been signed by nearly 200 countries. But what does the outcome of COP26 mean for the built environment, and how do we align our engineering with the direction of travel that the pact sets out?

Accelerated action

There are two primary aspects to the pact: adaptation (taking measures to deal with the effects of global warming), and mitigation (reducing GHG emissions to reduce global warming), with urgent action being called for on both. Both have direct impact on the built environment.
The pact is clear that in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we must target 1.5°C rather than 2.0°C. It’s stated that this will require “rapid, deep and sustained” reductions in emissions and “accelerated action in this critical decade”, requiring a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by mid-century. Clearly, our work must continue at pace in developing lower-carbon approaches to design and construction.
In order to adapt to the changing climate at the same time, enhanced global ambition and action is called for, with developed countries1 being required to “urgently and significantly scale up their provision of climate finance, technology transfer and capacity-building for adaptation so as to respond to the needs of developing [countries] as part of a global effort”.
Global cooperation and accelerated action are already aligned with the Institution’s work in recent years to increase focus on sustainability across our membership, but the message from COP26 is loud and clear – we must raise our levels of ambition and commitment further still. 


The fact that both adaption and mitigation is included in the pact is important, recognising the importance of assisting countries that are both the most vulnerable to climate change, whilst bearing least responsibility for historical emissions2. In these countries, the priority is to increase resilience and standards of living, and so the pact refers to mitigation “in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”.
We must think similarly, with the design of a hospital in Scotland, Sweden or Switzerland requiring a different approach to one in Sudan, Serbia or Syria. Reducing global emissions in line with science based targets remains the overall goal, but the second set of countries represents a scenario where the engineer may choose to advocate for a higher carbon solution if it delivers a significant positive impact on a community’s resilience or societal development.


In the run-up to COP26, a number of key reports were issued from across the construction industry, including by the UK Green Building Council, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Institute of British Architects . The message in these reports was clear – more action is needed, and stronger government policies are required, if we are to align our industry with the 45% 2030 target.
One response to this came from the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative. This is a joint campaign launched in collaboration with the governments of the UK, India, Germany and Canada, and included a commitment to introduce the mandatory reporting of carbon emissions due to the use of structural materials on all major public projects by 20253. Emissions reductions targets are also planned, with more details to be announced next year.

Looking forward

It was clear to me from listening to the various debates and discussions during COP26 that the whilst net-zero 2050 is an important goal, aiming for 45% emissions reductions by 2030 is more important still. And so I was delighted to chair a panel discussion on Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day that had been organised by our Scottish regional group, where the panellists and I could debate what change we need to see to achieve this 2030 goal.

The focus on reuse and efficient design were a constant that we returned to throughout the event, regardless of whether we were discussing low-carbon materials, new technologies, or a graduate’s priorities.

As we go through the remaining eight years to 2030, this approach towards minimising our reliance on new materials must sit at the core of every project we work on. And in the words of our panellists, this will require us to bring our values to work, to be brave with our decisions, and to challenge everything.

[1] ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries is the language used as outlined in the Copenhagen accord to refer to Annex I and non-Annex I Parties respectively (for full lists of each, visit: )
[2] 92% of all human-induced GHG in the atmosphere is there as a result of the USA, UK, Europe, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan – from Hickel (2020), Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary,

[3] From 1:07:30


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