My Experience at the U.N. Climate Change Conference

By Helen Gurfel

This post marks my first time at COP (Conference of Parties). COP21 is the 21st conference since the United Nations started hosting an annual convening of world leaders to coordinate a cooperative effort to tackle climate change. Many participants have expressed hope that a new universal agreement on climate change will be signed and enforced by all nations by 2020.

On December 3, as executive director of ULI’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance, I participated in the U.N. conference on climate change, and more specifically in the conference’s Buildings Day, representing ULI in signing on to an alliance of organizations committed to driving the real estate and construction sector on the “below 2 degrees Celsius path” – a necessary path if we are going to curtail the adverse effects of climate change.

As a child growing up in a culturally diverse household, I dreamed of working at the U.N., and even went so far as to get a master’s degree in international studies focused on Europe and the Middle East. Later in life, it became clear that I would work on more tactical projects for the greater good. I chose sustainability projects in the built environment, as buildings account for over 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. As a result, I was very excited to be in Paris for the COP21 events.

ULI Greenprint’s mission since inception has been to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across our membership’s portfolio by 50 percent by 2030 from a 2009 baseline, in line with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recommendations. Our members are diligently working toward this goal, as demonstrated in their ongoing performance improvement represented by an 11 percent reduction in carbon emissions in the past five years. Many ULI Greenprint members already have public emissions reduction goals, and with ULI Greenprint’s participation in and commitment to Buildings Day, demonstrate the collective influence of ULI toward a singular carbon reduction target. Information about our members and their performance can be found in the Greenprint Performance Report.

This is the first time Buildings Day was included as part of the main conference and not just part of the side program. Exciting times for buildings!

Architecture 2030 founder Ed Mazria kicked off Buildings Day, emphasizing the need for net-zero buildings. Multiple panels covered a variety of topics, ranging from public policy and strategies for mass deployment of energy efficiency projects to financing models and city engagement. Hundreds of people attended each session.

During the day, I heard about many positive actions being taken by governments and building owners: coal plants being shut down in Michigan and Ontario, construction of net-zero buildings in Toronto and many other cities globally, and the planning and development of sustainable cities, including three in India.

Participants discussed rapid urbanization (by 2030, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities), stressing that a focus on carbon emissions mitigation in the buildings sector is essential for both developed and developing countries. Mayors and other public officials from cities around the globe shared insights on policy, benchmarking, and the need to exchange information on getting policies right the first time around. The consensus on recommended policy order: create a cap-and-trade system to price emissions, then develop energy efficiency policies followed by policies to promote deployment of renewable energy to meet the remaining demand.

Recurring themes throughout the day centered on greater collaboration and transparency. Participants agreed that we share one planet, and to save it, governments, the private sector, and individuals need to help solve climate change issues. Many panelists spoke about the importance of creating effective public/private partnerships. It was also noted that reducing carbon emissions creates the “perfect cycle of benefits” because decarbonizing creates investment opportunities, improves air quality, reduces health care costs, increases real estate occupancy rates, and ultimately creates greater property value.

At the end of the day, 20 country representatives and more than 50 organizations signed the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. I represented ULI in signing the alliance’s pledge to put the real estate and construction sector on a course to help limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. The alliance catalyzes stronger collaboration and aligns existing partnerships to achieve greater scale and increase the speed of efficiency actions in the real estate and construction industries.

In the words of Philippe Benoit, “Now it is time to turn words into actions, and actions into investments.” I look forward to working with ULI Greenprint members – and ULI’s broader membership around the world – to do just that.

Helen Gurfel

Executive Director

ULI Greenprint Center

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