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Stepping up together for climate action: The Global Climate Action Summit

Strategically hosted between the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and the 2020 deadline to stop the global average temperature from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius, the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) aims to ignite climate action ambitions. Summit attendees hail from a range of government sectors, businesses, nonprofits, and research institutions, all coming together to tackle the most pressing problem of our generation.

Arup’s decades-long commitment to sustainability in the built environment is essential to the firm’s mission to shape a better world. Around the globe, our work seeks to check climate change and build resilience to avoid its worst impending impacts. 

In advance of the GCAS, Arup’s five delegates discussed climate-action mobilization, the importance of partnerships, and their desired summit outcomes.

Our delegates: San Francisco Group Leader Aidan Hughes; Energy, Cities, and Climate Change Director Ben Smith; Americas Cities Leader Brian Swett; Americas Energy Business Leader Cole Roberts; and Arup Fellow Fiona Cousins.


Climate action has been a driving force in each of your careers. Why is this work important to you?

Fiona: Climate action is the greatest challenge of our generation. It wasn't particularly a problem for the baby boomers because the population was much smaller, but the population has doubled in my lifetime. More recently, we’ve also seen a rise in affluence and the expectations about what and how people consume, as well as their quality life. That means we have to work really hard on climate action — it’s a huge intellectual, social, political, and motivational challenge. 

Ben: The stat I always use is that the urban population is nine times greater today than just 100 years ago. That’s worrying because it feels a little like we are disconnecting ourselves from the natural world, the very thing we need to work hard to protect. 

Fiona is right, climate action can’t be discussed by academics and politicians alone. Tackling this issue requires action on all levels — from individuals, communities, schools, etc. And it especially requires action from those who are seeking to integrate the natural world with the built environment. We have a huge responsibility as designers, not least of which is to do much more to bring these challenges into the mainstream.

Brian: I agree — climate action is the existential threat facing humanity. It’s a game changer — if we don’t solve it, climate change fundamentally changes the ways in which people live, work, act, and play. While there are massive social equity challenges associated with it, climate action is a unifying problem that will affect everyone. 

I remember the Environmental Defense Fund ran a phenomenal ad, I think in the early 2000s, with some guy standing on a train track talking about climate change and why he didn't care about the issue since it wouldn’t impact him. As you hear the train coming, he steps aside and a child remains behind. The decisions we’re making today, they’re make-or-break for the next generation, and we’ll know in the first fifteen years if we’ve bent the curve on climate change or not. 

Cole: I think this existential crisis is also an existential opportunity. As Brian says, there’s a chance for this to be an exciting moment where we come together as a humanity. We can discover new, innovative approaches to energy, infrastructure, and transportation systems that wouldn’t have emerged had we not been forced to come together under a common purpose.

CIC Zero Carbon Building in Hong Kong CIC Zero Carbon Building in Hong Kong
The Construction Industry Council's Zero Carbon Building in Hong Kong

There is sometimes an assumption that climate action and sustainability are the same conversation. How would you describe the relationship between the two?

Brian: Climate action is necessary but not sufficient for sustainability. It’s like back in the green movement of the '80s and '90s when we used to get, “Oh yeah, I’m green, I recycle.” Very singular — if I check this box, then I’m sustainable.

Fiona: Exactly, it used to be if you bought a hybrid car, you were there. Or if you always drank from a reusable thermos, you were there. There were lots of single-point activities and I think there's still a whole lot of that. In reality, you need widespread action — you need lots of partners with lots of primary impact points, because this problem is too big. We, together, have to do everything.

Ben: And we are seeing this move toward partnerships. Cities are starting to recognize that mayors alone can’t deliver the level of action that’s needed. The United Nations and other similar organizations are starting to set up private sector alliances, and numerous private companies are showing leadership. Just look at the We Mean Business platform being promoted through the GCAS.

Brian: I've been heartened, at least within the real estate developer and owner space, how much more seriously companies are taking this. They’ve gone from reporting on sustainability or energy or community engagement to truly changing behavior. They’re getting policies and practices in place that change the trajectory of what they're producing in terms of buildings in communities.

Cole: I think that there’s actually more activity going on amongst our clients than is sometimes evident, especially when it comes to assessing climate risks. It's one thing for a company to come out and say what positive action they're taking to stave off climate change, which usually gains them some market benefit. It’s another thing for companies to assess their own risks. Personally, I’m heartened to know that there is more activity than meets the eye. 

Windmills Windmills
Wind turbines adding renewable energy to the grid

Decarbonization is a prominent approach to climate action in our industry. Where are you seeing the most progress?

Fiona: In the United States, we’re seeing decarbonization leadership at the city level. Cities are beginning to set targets, like an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. In some ways, it’s a funny place to start, since cities don’t own the distribution or generation network.

Ben: But I’ll add in that city leadership is often directly connected to (i.e., elected by) its citizens who have a strong voice in terms of regional and national politics. In our work with the C40 Cities initiatives, we’ve seen you often don’t need formal power to drive action. 

Fiona: Yes, absolutely. The other place that we're getting to see decarbonization quite a lot is in campus design. In those cases, there’s a little bit more control over the energy generation and distribution network.

Brian: I’m happy to see that the metric in the built environment is transitioning from building energy efficiency to building emissions impact and emissions efficiency. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of research and interest around building electrification because there’s a realization that to decarbonize means we then need to produce zero carbon electricity. 

I’m also encouraged by the massive amounts of renewables that have been added to existing grids in northern Europe, west Texas, and elsewhere without breaking down the entire system. We can have a distributed renewable system that meets current demands for reliability and price. This isn’t to say that the transition won’t be challenging or costly, but the potential is there to achieve a zero-carbon energy system in our lifetime. 

Cole: One of the challenges of the net-zero dialogue is that it’s heavily focused on operations and procured energy from the grid. We just did an interesting analysis on the total carbon performance of one of our projects, and while the operations and transportation of the building are decarbonizing over time, the biggest issue is the building’s embodied carbon. There is a time-based value to when carbon is released, and the carbon released today is more important than what is going to be released in ten, twenty, fifty years. 

Think of the embodied carbon in all the infrastructure we’ll need to build over the coming decades to respond to climate change, the embodied carbon in seawalls, for instance. We have to address the embodied carbon factor or we’re going to bury ourselves in a situation where we’re emitting more and more carbon just to protect ourselves. 

Fiona: Yes, and as Cole says, if embodied carbon becomes the biggest component of our construction emissions, then the idea of the circular economy becomes really important. The circular economy is a way of trying to recycle, reuse, and repurpose materials through either the technical or biological cycle — so there’s an opportunity there.

Aidan: I do think we’re seeing increased attention from our clients on the circular economy and its possibilities. And at Arup we’re doing quite a bit of research to demonstrate how a move to the circular economy can benefit our industry and offer up opportunities. We’ve teamed up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a knowledge partner to try to embed some circular economy principles into our work in the built environment and to potentially provide leadership across this space. But there’s still a long way to go.

Circular House London Design Competition Circular House London Design Competition
The Circular Building, an installation for the 2016 London Design Festival designed and built using circular principles

What outcomes do you hope to see from the Global Climate Action Summit?

Fiona: Realistically, I hope for an understanding of the value of nongovernmental action and an energizing of those who are prepared to act. We need to come together to share ideas that actually work and inspire one another. 

Brian: I think a key outcome would be a continued formal engagement of subnational sectors. It wasn't until the most recent United Nations climate summits that subnational states even had a formal role. Historically the negotiations were very top-down, nation-state oriented. So much can be accomplished through coordination and commitments between nations, governments, businesses, cities, and states. It's creating the momentum that Fiona is talking about and recognizing the various structures and entities that are going to be key to moving us forward.

Aidan: The summit is definitely an opportunity to show that the US continues to be a world leader committed to climate action and for us to demonstrate that leadership. But what’s most essential is finding the combined voice of businesses, cities, nonprofits, governments, and communities. Like my colleagues have said above, collective action is the only way we’ll make a difference. 

For Arup, this summit and guiding targets like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals give us a chance to think about our business in a different way. While climate change is something we can proudly say we’re already working to address, we constantly need to examine how we can contribute to climate action and step up.