Reflections from COP26

About this article
Heather Evans


Heather Evans


Future Thinking
Market Insights

Sign Up for Market Trends & Insights

The Green industrial revolution – the time is now

Ten days on from the end of the COP26 summit and countering the frustration felt by many that world leaders had faltered at the last hurdle and not gone far enough, there is a palpable sense across the world that the time for action is now and we need to move beyond commitments and pledges to the planning and implementation stage.

Having attended COP26, RLB UK Head of Sustainability, Heather Evans and Andrew Thomson, RLB UK Environmental Manager, reflect on some of the key take-aways from the summit and the opportunity the built environment industry has to make a difference in sustainability through every project and activity.

Running out of time – action and innovation needed now

One thing is absolutely crystal clear, to move ahead companies need to have net zero plans and strategies in place now – not just commitments. All stakeholders from investors to consumers have become increasingly cynical, and rightly so, about initiatives perceived to be ‘green washing’ and ‘grand-standing’ targets. So, there is a real need to demonstrate clearly how commitments will be, or are being, achieved with monitoring and reporting on progress an absolute must.

Within RLB one critical action we are taking is calculating our supply chain footprint and finding ways to work with our partners, suppliers and clients to reduce this over the coming decade. It is fundamental that we measure this part of our carbon footprint and work collaboratively to drive it down. As travel represents around 90% of our existing carbon footprint, transitioning to essential travel by sustainable modes is another key action we are embedding in our practice. 

It is worth remembering that in the UK, we are in a prime position as a nation, leading globally in setting commitments and already acting to address government targets. For example, the aim of the NHS to be the world’s first net zero national health service is underpinned by clear targets and supported by immediate action, monitoring and evaluation. RLB’s work with University Hospitals in Leicester is a great example into what trusts will be doing going forward to meet NHS carbon standards, not just getting ready for net zero in new projects but looking at embodied carbon too.  

For the NHS, and many other sectors and industry, this will require a quantum leap in how they are currently working. However, the speed at which we will need to deliver action over the next 5 -10 years will drive innovation and forward thinking.

Finance – green is the new black

Green finance is a huge issue – from investment in developing countries to listed companies to construction projects. It plays a key role in driving change with funding available to mitigate emissions, and investment for those projects that demonstrate change to current approaches and innovation through new processes.

Green and sustainable finance is a trend that is only going to grow with investors increasingly considering Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics in their decision making, This is stepping up the requirements for companies to demonstrate strong ESG performance, and can lead to investors divesting commitments from those that are not moving quickly enough to embed ESG into their business strategy. In fact, research by Gartner revealed 85% of investors considered ESG factors in investment decisions in 2020.

At a domestic level in the UK, the government has already laid out its green finance strategy aligning it with the commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and implementation of this strategy is already taking place.  As well as seeing how finance will accelerate the delivery of the UK’s carbon targets and clean growth ambitions, it will be interesting to see how the UK financial services industry captures domestic and international commercial opportunities arising from the ‘greening of finance’ in the next few years.

Look beyond carbon

Although the impact of carbon is huge, it’s vital that we take a more holistic view and look at other factors such as air pollution, water, land scarcity and biodiversity.  At RLB this is absolutely an approach we advocate. It is only by looking at these factors in the round and having those conversations early on that you can gauge the full implications over the whole project lifecycle and make properly informed decisions. 

From a micro to a macro level, discussions around doing everything we do to address sustainability challenges has ramifications. For example, at a macro level, if we reduce deforestation this may impact the supply of sustainable timber – will we see prices go up and how will we manage the knock-on impact for the supply chain? Challenges like this will drive innovation as we look for sustainable solutions whilst demonstrating the importance of early and ongoing discussions on procurement.

UK in a strong position – let’s build on it

A really positive take-away from COP26 for the UK is that we are ahead of the curve compared to over countries. In the built environment industry we are really making progress and although there is much work to be done we continue to see great initiatives from key industry collectives including the Construction Leadership Council to the UK Green Building Council.

At RLB our approach is to support our clients in all aspects of the journey from providing technical advice in core services through to monitoring and measuring progress against eco commitments. We know that sometimes it’s the simplest of steps that can collectively have a massive impact.  One of the main messages from the Summit was how early intervention and action will create the greatest long-term change.  This is definitely something our industry is embracing but we must keep the pressure and urgency to ensure we are talking about real progress when COP27 convenes in Egypt next year. 

We can support our clients to deliver on the above actions, alongside consultancy on sustainability, carbon, social value and wellbeing. For further details, please speak to Heather Evans, National Head of Sustainability.


Heather Evans
Heather Evans

Partner – National Head of Sustainability