The final agreement signed by 197 countries at the end of the United Nations COP26 global climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, was considerably weaker on coal and other fossil fuels than many activists and countries wanted. But more than 40 nations did agree to reduce construction of new coal-fired power plants both domestically and internationally at the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 event, during which construction sector participants and other attendees produced and advocated for new climate change initiatives.

COP26 President Alok Sharma released on Nov. 12 the draft agreement that made concessions to countries that objected to stronger language on coal. It originally called for “phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”

But last-minute pressure from India and China one day past the official conference end weakened it to “phasedown” of coal.

COP26 built on many decisions made at the 2015 Paris climate summit, at which 196 countries agreed to reduce CO emissions to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5° to 2°C. Countries that pledged at the Glasgow summit to phase out domestic and international building of new coal plants included Poland, Vietnam and Chile, but not the U.S., China or India until the wording revise was made.

But while countries agreed to accelerate emissions cut pledges next year to maintain global temperatures at the 1.5°C mark, said a Nov. 18 Standard & Poor's analysis, "the gap between what scientists believe to be a safe limit and the existing trajectory of global temperature remains significant."


Assessing Impacts

Observers say they are disappointed that more wasn’t accomplished at COP26, and that wealthier nations, including the U.S., did too little to support developing countries already struggling with climate change impacts.

Simon Rawlinson, a partner at Arcadis and member of the UK Construction Leadership Council, termed "shameful," attendees rejection of a fund to support those countries affected. "This short-term decision will do little to win hearts and minds of developing nations and shows that the liabilities of the developed world will only grow and grow," he said in a post-conference assessment for online British construction publication Buildihg.

Nations did pledge to reduce methane emissions and to phase out sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2040. The U.S. did not sign that pact, but signatories include a number of U.S. states and many global cities, as well as Ford Motor Corp. and General Motors.

Rachel Cletus, a policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said individual nations’ pledges to reduce CO emissions “helped narrow the ambition gap somewhat but collectively still fell short.”


Where Were the Drivers?

In 2020, China, India, the U.S. and Japan accounted for more than 75% of coal capacity globally with China responsible for about 50% of that total, according to Effuah Alleyne, senior oil and gas analyst at Global Data. “While Vietnam, Indonesia and G7 members such as Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK are among those that pledge support [to eliminate new coal projects], they represent a minor driver for significant change,” he says.

Some analysts suggest that the Biden administration may have been hamstrung by U.S. lawmakers’ removal of the Clean Energy Performance Program (CEPP), the key enforcement mechanism in the President's climate policy, from the reconciliation package just one month prior to COP26.
Congressional negotiators removed the $150-billion program from the spending bill because of objections from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Even so, energy companies over the past decade have been shifting away from coal projects largely as a result of market forces. In 2018, Xcel Energy pledged to provide carbon-neutral electricity by 2050 and Southern Co. announced on its latest earnings call Nov. 4 that it will shutter about 55% of its coal fleet by the end of the decade as the company shifts to a net-zero energy mix.

"The global power industry is in a state of transformation and needs to accelerate the path to net zero as many companies, communities and stakeholders forge ahead with commitments to lower carbon emissions. The COP26 pledges are consistent with that movement," says Mario Azar, Black and Veatch power business president. The firm previously said it will exit the coal-based power market. "Tthe time horizon of this phase-out depends on a host of factors," he said.

In a Nov. 8 announcement, UK design firm Arup said it will not agree to work on any global fossil fuel or hydrocarbon related projects starting next April, as part of its net zero goal.

While not part of the main COP26 event, the U.K. Green Building Council released its Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, which provides a detailed analysis of specific emissions reductions that sectors of the built environment need to achieve annually to reach net zero by 2050. The analysis includes emissions data on the whole lifecycle of buildings, including embedded emissions of construction materials and products.

Regaining control over the climate crisis will require a change in the way cities are designed and built, British architect Sir Norman Foster told COP26 attendees representing municipalities, in a session with John Kerry, President Biden’s special climate envoy.

Foster said the global design sector is core to developing needed solutions: “Global warming is a design issue. We have the ability, we have the brains, we have the technology.”

Arcadis' Rawlinson acknowledged that "aligning the legitimate rights of most of the world’s population to a quality of life with challenging fossil fuel reduction targets was never going to be easy," adding that "the fair 'phasing down' of fossil fuel use will be the defining geo-political problem of the next 30 years."

But he noted, "measured against the key aim of 'keeping 1.5 alive,' the conference fell short of hope if not its limited ambition. Clearly the trajectory will need to accelerate, but who is going to jump first?"

Rawlinson was positive, however, on UK construction sector presentations on emissions cuts offered in conjunction with COP26, including what he termed "examples of pragmatic steps being taken to remove carbon from construction through choice of materials, wider adoption of manufacturing and a more mindful management of the vehicle fleet."