The power plays, the conflicts, the drama and the news about the weather: Diary notes as the world prepares for the United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

“Some of us have to actually live the future that you all are setting on fire for us … We do not have the privilege or luxury of lobbyist spin.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congressional hearings with Big Oil companies, October 29.

The Glendowie solutions

“We know we have to reduce the whole-of-life carbon footprint of homes by about five times,” said Andrew McKenzie, CEO of the housing agency Kāinga Ora, on Thursday.

So Kāinga Ora has launched a test project in Glendowie to help work out how. And it’s going to Glasgow – virtually.

Ngā Kāinga Anamata, which will begin construction next year, was chosen from hundreds of entries all over the world as one of 17 projects to be featured in the Build Better Now virtual pavilion at COP26.

Anamata will have five apartment blocks, each three storeys with six walk-up units, making 30 in all.

All the buildings are identical in design but they have a different construction technology. During construction and over the next 15 years, Kāinga Ora will measure emissions performance and make the results available for free to the building industry.

Does timber framing perform better than cross-laminated timber (CLT) sheets? Is a combination of those two better again? What about steel or precast concrete?

The Green Building Council and Passive House have both helped create this project. It’s on track for a 9 Homestar rating and Passive House standards have been met, with solar energy, mechanical heat recovery systems, CO2 heat pumps and other components, so the buildings will be net zero users of energy. The benefits to the occupants are obvious.

The construction industry contributes 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in this country and Ngā Kāinga Anamata means science-based progress towards reducing that. It’s a good initiative.

But how good? The project demonstrates a classic problem with climate-related reform. It’s not in sync with the timetable the climate has set us and it isn’t holistic in ways it really should be.

We need the entire building industry fast-tracked to meet whole-of-life zero carbon targets. And the fact is, we already know a lot about how to do that.

In particular, as Kāinga Ora itself says, the major component of a building’s emissions comes from its use, not its construction. That is, it already knows the solar panels and heating systems in these buildings will contribute far more to climate goals that resolving the question of steel or timber framing.

Which, by the way, is already resolved. Kāinga Ora also knows that using timber is the more climate-friendly option.

This project will put some useful numbers around that, but will it speed up our conversion to zero emissions construction. Why isn’t Kāinga Ora building all its new housing to Passive House standards already?

I asked that question on Thursday and was told by Brian Berg, manager of carbon neutral housing, that they now have “quite a nice collection of pilot projects” underway, each one testing “something slightly different”, but there were “no plans for more passive house R&D”.

Just do it already, then. Kāinga Ora runs the largest home-construction programme in the country, by far, and on the whole it’s well ahead of the private sector in this field. But it’s still not going fast enough.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has been developing its own Building for Climate Change programme, and this project dovetails with that. MBIE hopes that “developments like Ngā Kāinga Anamata [will be] “the norm from 2030”.

Good. But this is an emergency, remember? Where are the regulations to make it happen?

Anamata also lacks a holistic approach to its task. One example: There’s a wide linear courtyard between the rows of apartment blocks, which should be perfect for kids to play safely in.

At the online launch, commercial director Matt Noyes talked viewers through a flyover of the project. “As you can see,” he said, “there’s plenty of amenity for bikes, play and community activities.”

At the very moment he said that, the fly-through was showing us that courtyard. It’s a car park.

The Build Better Now pavilion at COP26 is at buildbetternow.co, live from November 1.

Emojis say it all

The planet, looking all green and blue. A green heart, leaves and trees. Also pointing down, laughing, praying.

“Media intelligence” company Meltwater has reported on the most common emojis used in Australia in reference to the COP26 conference: mixed but hopeful might be the best way to put it.

Emojis to describe COP26 and Australia are different. Pointing down leads the pack, along with the “see no evil” monkey and a whole bunch of faces, mainly angry ones.

Australia has been widely condemned for the weakness of its emissions-reduction targets.

China's new targets

Yesterday China updated its NDC: the nationally determined contribution that sets out its goals for emissions reduction. The news is, well, complicated.

Put simply, China is not doing enough. It says emissions will peak by 2030, but that’s too late, and it will get to net zero by 2060, which is also too late.

China contributes 30 per cent of annual global emissions and unless it sets better targets it’s hard to see how the world will be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

But there is some hope. China’s moving from a terrible position. It gets 70 per cent of its energy from coal. Its largest steel company on its own emits more carbon than the whole of Pakistan.

But China is also the world’s largest user of renewable energy. It has massive new wind, solar and nuclear projects under planning and construction, along with a greatly expanded reforestation programme. The new plan sets significantly bigger targets in all these areas. And all the major industry sectors have plans for big emissions reduction: in addition to energy and steel, that includes agriculture, transport, construction and petrochemicals.

Many observers believe China can do more than it says it will, and therefore may be underpromising in order to overdeliver.

No one’s happy about that. But there is still some hope China will turn up to the G20 meeting in Rome this weekend and then Glasgow next week with new commitments.

If it doesn’t, and therefore if Glasgow doesn’t produce a viable consensus around the 1.5 degree target, the UN secretary-general has mooted a new option. Why not, said Antonio Guterres last week, force all countries to reconsider their pledges every year. Just keep on until it’s done.

He wasn’t popular for saying that.

Even the Army agrees

In America, the Department of Defence (DoD) has declared climate change a menace. In a report last week, the Pentagon said “increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change” are making all the other challenges it faces greater.

With the UN predicting that more than 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050, the DoD said it was preparing for “power outages, climate migration and geopolitical strife”.

But it seems nobody’s told Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. While President Joe Biden has trimmed his US$3.5 trillion budget plan to $1.75 trillion, he still can’t get their support. They’ve gutted his climate and family support plans, scuppered his hopes for higher taxes on corporates and the rich, and still they’re looking for more things to complain about.

You too can go to Glasgow

Or at least get some of it to come to you. While the politicians and officials do their best to wear each other out in backroom negotiations, so very many non-government groups will be there too: setting up camp on the plains outside the city walls, so to speak. And many of them will be reaching out.

Just a few of the online events:

Livestream: Cop26.tv is a news and information channel run by Extinction Rebellion, with its schedule tba.

Official conference information: Big website here.

Conference documents: Essential info or the cure for insomnia, you be the judge.

How’s everyone doing?: To keep up with how well countries are behaving, check out the graphs, tables and no-nonsense analysis at Climate Action Tracker.

Webinar: Amazonia for Life: Protect 80% by 2025 initiative. An online panel discussion about efforts to pull the Amazon rainforest back from the tipping point and the leadership of indigenous people in that struggle. November 4, 3am NZT.

Panel: Cities leading the essential phaseout of oil, gas, and coal. 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from cities that has to change. November 10, 4am, Zoom link tba but check at stand.earth

Conference coverage: Most media outlets around the world have extensive COP26 coverage and the British media are going especially big. Try the Guardian.

Climate news: Bloomberg Green is comprehensive and up to date, and even includes a carbon tracker: 414.922103 parts per million at 4pm yesterday.

For the record, last century the figure was 280ppm; by 1958, when measurements started being taken regularly, it was 316ppm. In 1988, the year Nasa’s James Hansen famously warned Congress about climate change, it hit 350ppm. After than it seemed 400ppm was a red line we should not cross. That happened briefly in 2013 and in a no-looking back way in 2016.

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