What does the next generation of sustainability leadership look like in the built environment?

Hirigoyen speaks exclusively to edie a month ahead of her departure from the Council, after the best part of nine years at the helm.

It is often said that a week is a long time in politics. It is most certainly a long time in sustainable business in this era defined by rapid change. So, eight-and-a-half years could rightly be defined as an era.

Within Hirigoyen’s first few months at the Council, the Paris Agreement was ratified. The agreement struck at the UN’s COP in 2015, she said, paved the way for the climate conversation to become “much more tangible”, translating ambition into degrees Celsius. And a conversation open beyond the political and scientific spheres makes for the involvement of cities, businesses and citizens.

This was a turning point, Hirigoyen says, for the conversation around rapid decarbonisation “going from being fringe to pretty mainstream”.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the UK, off the back of the first major report revealing just how much worse the Paris Agreement’s 2C trajectory would be socio-economically than 1.5C, became the first major nation to legislate for net-zero emissions by 2050.

UKGBC convened more than 100 members to push Theresa May to update the Climate Change Act, in what would be one of her last major actions in office. Hirigoyen cites this as one of the Council’s major climate-related achievements, along with its subsequent production of a Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the UK’s built environment sector. The sector will be crucial to delivering net-zero, accounting for more than one-third of the UK’s energy use and one-fifth of its emissions.

Published at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, the Roadmap set out the sector’s key sources of emissions – past and present – and outlined how to bring them to net-zero by 2050. It evidences that cutting operational emissions on this trajectory is possible using existing technologies and sets out why tackling embodied emissions is so crucial.

The Roadmap provided “much more clarity on what net-zero really means and looks like”, Hirigoyen explains, describing it as “the real backbone” to the Council’s climate mitigation work.

Policy advocacy

Although it is technically possible to cut operational building emissions to net-zero by 2050 in the UK, the Council found, in developing the Roadmap, that they would only be reduced by 60% under a ‘business-as-usual’ decarbonisation approach.

Hirigoyen does believe that most of the sector has “gone from incrementalism – ‘change-as-usual’ – to wanting to do no harm” in terms of its emissions impact.

The key remaining barrier to change, she says, is a lack of “any substantive strategy” from the Government. Its official climate advisors last year urged it to change track after years of “scant progress” in decarbonising buildings”, partly due to “major failures in delivery programmes” such as the Green Homes Grant.

We have had two more Prime Ministers since that warning was published. Hirigoyen does welcome the current administration’s new 2035 energy efficiency targets and its acceptance of some recommendations from Chris Skidmore MP’s Net-Zero Review, which clearly set out how decarbonisation will be crucial to the UK’s economic success in the coming decades. But, she says, it has yet to present a joined-up, long-term vision to deeply decarbonise buildings.

So, when asked to define climate leadership for the sector going forward, Hirigoyen says it “absolutely, now has policy influencing and championing at the forefront”. She points to how the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign, of which UKGBC is an accelerator, updated its criteria last year to encourage members to push for more robust green policy and to leave industry bodies stalling progress.

Hirigoyen elaborates: “We often talk about the ambition loop. There’s only so much that business can do, but, by showing leadership ahead of government, those businesses show government that it is possible to regulate.”

Regenerative economy

Another key facet of climate leadership for Hirigoyen is a focus on adaptation and resilience – not purely decarbonisation.

There has been an increased focus on adaptation in the climate diplomacy and policy space as science in this field improves. The last UN climate COP, in Egypt late last year, saw the agreement of a new Adaptation Agenda to improve climate-related protections for more than four billion people this decade. This came after a summer of record-breaking extreme weather globally.

Hirigoyen also argues that a true climate leader will act on the “inextricable relations” between climate (both adaptation and mitigation) and the broader church of sustainable development topics, including human health and biodiversity.

On biodiversity, she says she has “no doubt” that recent global milestones have increased focus in the private sector.

The UN’s 15th biodiversity conference finally concluded in December after a string of pandemic-related delays, with a new global treaty to halt and reverse nature loss. Just last week, the first science-based targets for nature were published. Before the year is out, businesses will have a new global framework to measure and disclose their nature-related risks though the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD).

A caveat from Hirigoyen, however, on delivery: “I do think we are in the foothills, still. Whilst there’s a lot of discussion, I think this sector in particular has got a long way to go.”

To give an example, the UK Government has mandated that developers will need to achieve 10% biodiversity net-gain at all large domestic, commercial and mixed-use sites from this November. The same requirements will apply to smaller sites in early 2024.

Hirigoyen believes that the 10% target is “nowhere near enough”, given that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Yet some big developers had been pushing for a weaker target and greater permission for offsetting – which the Government ultimately did not accept.

Next steps

Hirigoyen will be succeeded as UKGBC chief executive by Smith Mordak, the current director of sustainability and physics at consultancy Buro Happold.

She says that she does not wish to speak on Smith’s behalf on their likely priorities in the immediate term but believes that the focus on accelerating the net-zero transition, while also avoiding carbon tunnel vision, will continue.

In the longer-term, Hirigoyen says, she wants to see the Council pushing the sector beyond the ‘do no harm’ mindset. “The next tier is restorative and regenerative, which is very much where I think we’ll need to get to for this sector in due course.”

For now, there are some key deliverables set in stone. The Council will build on the Whole Life Carbon Roadmap with a similar tool for climate adaptation and resilience, which will emphasise the role of nature-based solutions in urban areas.

It is also co-developing net-zero building standards for buildings of different types. Hirigoyen believes this will be “transformational” to markets, giving developers a clear aim and investors a clear steer of which buildings align with their climate commitments.

Hirigoyen has not yet announced her next professional move. She tells edie that, after working for 25 years without a break exceeding one week, she will be taking some time to relax and reflect before jumping back into action.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie