SOM’s Yasemin Kologlu speaks at COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference. Photo © Catalin Marin / Courtesy of SOM

3 Building Industry Takeaways from the UN Climate Change Conference

The built environment was a key focus at COP28, the world’s largest event dedicated to mobilizing against climate change.

It was an honor to represent SOM, Architecture 2030, and our building industry community at COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai. While COP28 came with a fair share of controversy this year, the conference also led to a few significant milestones in our collective fight against climate change that make me more optimistic about our future. It was humbling to be in the company of so many pioneering experts.

The building industry is uniquely positioned to spearhead the beginning of a green renaissance.

Activists hold up signs calling for the end of fossil fuels at the UN Climate Change Conference
Fossil Fuel Phase Out action at COP28 on December 13, 2023. Photo COP28 / UN Climate Change / Andrea DiCenzo

Shared Commitment: Building Breakthrough

For the first time, we have committed to transition away from fossil fuels. While our shared language around fossil fuels could be more definitive, it’s important that we recognize this as a crucial moment in our history and appreciate this commitment as a significant step forward.

The conference also introduced the Building Breakthrough, a global initiative pushing for near-zero emissions and resilient buildings by 2030. Signed by 28 countries, including the United States, this commitment promotes sustainable solutions in the built environment, while also providing a framework for international collaboration, accountability, and reporting.

Panelists onstage at the Buildings and Construction for Sustainable Cities: New Key Partnerships for Decarbonisation, Adaptation and Resilience session on December 6, 2023. Photo by COP28 / UN Climate Change / Mahmoud Khaled

Shared Language: Sufficiency

In addition to the commitments taken at COP28, I also witnessed a remarkable shift in how we talk about climate action—with a greater focus on the built environment. The conversation is no longer only about buildings, but rather about the built environment holistically: infrastructure, transportation, even entire cities. The building sector presents a critical opportunity to close the carbon loop and lead actionable change across industries.

We are beginning to develop a common global language to calculate and articulate new climate strategies as well. On a growing scale, I often heard about “sufficiency.” Is there sufficient reason to do something? Can we build around self-sufficiency? Can buildings sufficiently operate within their means and means of our planet? This type of dynamic thinking was similarly invoked in my keynote, which defined the role the built environment must play in the Fifth Industrial Revolution and in closing the carbon loop. The built environment is responsible for 42% of global carbon emissions, yet the industry still heavily relies on systems and materials from the Third Industrial Revolution. Through a synthesis of low and high tech, a new generation of low carbon materials, and an adaptation of systems-level thinking, the building industry is uniquely positioned to lead the Fifth Industrial Revolution and spearhead the beginning of a green renaissance.

The Carbon Pavilion designed by SOM for for global investment company Dubai Holding, demonstrating low-carbon construction materials. Photo © Catalin Marin / Courtesy of SOM

Shared Accountability Across the Globe

This year, we designed a Carbon Pavilion for Dubai Holding at the COP28 Green Zone. The pavilion is intended to be a symbol of unity and inclusivity comprising two intersecting curved shells that provide space for informal events and education. The model combines low-tech and high-tech solutions for buildings, selected for their applicability anywhere and at any scale, to demonstrate how we can innovate with a new generation of low carbon materials. One half of the pavilion is built with K-BRIQ, a sustainable brick with 95 percent less embodied carbon than traditional masonry bricks; while the other half is made of FSC-certified modular timber. Good design and beautiful architecture don’t need to come with a high carbon footprint.

Our fight against climate change is much like the bricks that work together to form the pavilion. Both require radical reinterpretation of previous systems and innovative lines of thinking. The collaboration I witnessed reflected this effort. As an everyday citizen and mother, I often worry about the future state of the world for my son and future generations. Yet despite any reason for pessimism, COP28 reaffirmed that the many steps we have already taken and are continuing to take are in fact bringing us closer to our shared goals. Nations and people across the globe—of diverse backgrounds, varying resources, accessibility, and capital—are still uniting to learn from each other, collaborate selflessly, ensure accountability, and ultimately build the best future possible. To me, that is reason for hope.

Yasemin Kologlu is a principal at SOM, where she plays plays a central role in the firm’s efforts to transform the building industry’s response to the climate crisis.

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