AIA delegates at COP27 provide key takeaways from the conference
For the second year in a row, AIA sent delegates to United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), an annual conference that brings together government officials and nongovernmental organizations to collaborate on ways to combat the climate crisis.
Two of the delegates, Illya Azaroff, FAIA, Director of Design, Resilience and Regenerative Strategies at +LAB Architect PLLC, and Erica Cochran Hameen, Ph.D, Assoc. AIA, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, recently returned from the conference, held November 6-18 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and shared some of their insights.
How did COP27 change your approach to addressing the climate crisis?
Erica Cochran Hameen: I was always excited about identifying ways architects can contribute to helping reduce climate change, but going to COP made me feel even more hopeful because of the fact I was around 33,000 others who have the same goal.
It made me feel hopeful that I had the opportunity to have interdisciplinary conversations with different stakeholders from different professions and across different regions and learn what they’re doing. It was beneficial to share best practices and share challenges that we’ve faced and receive best practices and solutions to challenges that people in other places have faced.
Illya Azaroff: I don’t think attending COP changed my approach, but it reinforced some things and revealed some things. We must look toward the future, and the immediate impacts of climate on society and people in places is the majority of my work, so to hear that reinforced at COP27 was wonderful. So many people are suffering from the effects of climate change on a daily basis. They’re losing everything from their people, to their place, their economy, and their history, so to hear this acknowledged was a good step.
How did you personally advocate for the importance of architects in fighting climate change globally?
Illya: When I told people that we were there representing the American Institute of Architects, the largest professional body of design in the world with 94,000 members, you’d hear gasps. The follow up was always “architects play an incredible role in this fight.”
Anytime we’d meet someone they’d tell us that we play an important role in this. To me that was extremely important. I was asked to join some panels based on the fact that I represented architects and we represent the built environment.
Erica: I spoke on a panel about psychology, architecture, and climate change. I talked about the connection between the built environment and how it impacts people. When we talk about climate change we often talk about kilowatt hours and carbon emissions. We put them in these numbers that are often abstract, but what I wanted to do was to talk specifically about how buildings contribute to climate change and how it impacts people.
People are spending 95% of our time indoors, that’s a big contributor to our health. Architects have a critical role in that, it’s a huge responsibility. I break that down into five metrics of indoor environmental quality: spatial quality, acoustic quality, thermal quality, lighting quality, and air quality, and then I discuss how each relates to people. The type of mechanical system in your building and your ventilation system will impact upper respiratory illnesses. The circulation of air is important, but what happens when air outside is bad due to climate change? That hurts people.
If we as architects can help get buildings to net-zero, then we can help stop climate change. 40 percent of emissions come from buildings, in major cities 70-80 percent come from buildings. One big way to get that done is to get our buildings to net-zero.
If you worked on a building and walk away when it’s done, you haven’t done your job. The only way to know if you did your job well is to do a post-occupancy evaluation. You don’t know if your design solutions are right or wrong until people move in and you measure it. I’d love for there to be further discussions about the importance of indoor environmental quality so we can continue to make improvements to the wellbeing of people.
What are some elements of COP27 that made you hopeful about the societal approach to the climate crisis?
Illya: I quite frankly don’t think our approach is strong enough. We can’t continue to do business as usual and pay lip service to goals without following through and meeting those goals through serious action. That’s what we’ve experienced through the last 26 COP’s. We’ve had 26 of these and global warming has continued and there have been a series of disasters for people around the world.
If there is a hope, it’s that the syntax has changed. It’s changed to acknowledge the need for action in the immediate time frame to slow down the deleterious effects of climate migration and impacts. Another hopeful element is the Sustainable Development Goals that we’ve been working on around the world. At this COP, the IPCC released the new climate resilient development goals that are really about adaptation. The form that it takes is called the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda and it’s geared at protecting billions of climate vulnerable citizens through adaptation starting today. I was thrilled to see recognition that people are at risk today and that needs to be addressed, in addition to reducing carbon and greenhouse gasses.
You do need COP, it’s important to have a platform where nation states can gather and share goals and information, but how do you enforce those goals? That’s never clear. The intermediaries to make that implementation happen are really lacking. I hope people recognize that the global financing is there and the commitment to meet goals and targets for greenhouse gas reduction and resilient building capacity are there. But to make those two ends meet, it’s the middle piece that is lacking. The thing that needs more effort is the proof that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do.
Erica: Seeing people from so many countries participating was eye-opening. It showed me how many people are trying to address this situation. It was great to see organizations, governments, academics, and others all working together towards this goal. It was also great to see a lot of college students and young people who are excited about finding solutions. Seeing how young people connect the dots between climate change, sustainability, equity, ecology, and our future was wonderful to see. To see college students so engaged was very exciting.
Who were some of the most inspiring people at COP27?
Erica: Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist from Chad, was especially inspiring. She spoke about indigenous people and kept reminding us that indigenous people aren’t victims, but rather solutions. She emphasized the need to talk to indigenous people and focus on utilization of passive solutions, which are things we can do to impact climate change.
As architects, the first thing we should do when trying to be energy efficient is use passive solutions. Make your building not need as much energy to begin with, and then bring in solar panels and other technology to become net-zero. She spoke on a panel called “Indigenous Knowledge on Global Climate Science Policy and Action with a woman named Wahleah Johns, Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs. They both spoke about how indigenous knowledge might not be in a textbook, but it’s been passed down and they’re still experts in a field. That was very inspiring to me.
Illya: There were so many great people and great speeches at COP, some from the most humble places that have been impacted by climate change. Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr from Freetown, Sierra Leone was so honest about bringing community into the fight for climate adaptation and resilience and how difficult that can be. She was one of the people who made me realize why we need COP because you had someone representing the honest truth about what is needed in the climate change fight.
What would you like to see at COP28?
Erica: I hope AIA continues to participate. I’d love to see AIA participate in more panels and discussions. Buildings are critical to solving this problem and we need to help others understand what we as architects can contribute to the climate change crisis.
Illya: I’d like to see examples of implementation around the world represented by those who made the implementation. I want a real discussion on how we can share that knowledge that impacts real climate action immediately. I heard a lot of talk about that, but the I only saw a few examples. I’d like to see deeper pieces.