COP28 allows RICS to showcase profession's value

As RICS delegates head off to COP28 in Dubai, what role is there for the institution in the talks – and how will that affect surveyors in their day-to-day work?


  • Tim Smith

30 November 2023

Male City, buildings on island in Maldives

The Maldive islands, including the capital, Malé, are at risk of long-term sea level rise due to climate change

Land Journal: What role does RICS have at COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC)? And how is this different from previous years?

Tim Smith: We were at COP21 in Paris in 2015, and at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. At the latter, some of our public affairs team had access to the green zone, where non-accredited parties took part in meetings.

But this year RICS is an official observer in the blue zone for accredited organisations. Here, governments meet official observers, which means we can take part in conversations and be part of strategic decision-making and the way this affects different industries. And we're looking specifically at the role of the built and natural environment in reducing emissions, as well as protecting and promoting biodiversity.

COP28 is the first substantive and meaningful strategic opportunity RICS has had to be part of this global conversation. It's a watershed moment for us. Over the past 18 months, we've started to see more influence and movement from our sustainability work.

For instance, we've recently published the second edition of our Whole life carbon assessment professional standard (WLCA), and we have an upcoming professional standard on residential retrofitting. We will be launching our annual sustainability report as part of our activity at COP as well. WLCA is a big talking point, showing not only that we have a standard that can be used, but that we are also a profession who are skilled to do so.

So we can go to Dubai and talk with some authority about the role RICS has from a standards perspective, using the guidance, our thought leadership and data analysis. In particular, RICS' annual sustainability report and our recent Decarbonising the built environment policy papers.

But we will also be talking about and showcasing the role our members have in reducing the circa 40% of global emissions that come from buildings.

Almost three quarters of this contribution – so, representing around 26–27% of global emissions – comes from building operations. This is a significant opportunity for our members in property management and building surveying, and similarly for surveyors who work in construction, to show what they can do to reduce the remaining 13%. It's an exciting time.

LJ: How did we manage to go to Dubai?

TS: We had to apply to become an official observer. It's a long and quite admin-heavy process. We applied in summer last year and are now one of the 3,000 observer organisations. We're probably the largest in terms of representing the built environment globally.

The delegation will include our new chief executive Justin Young and our president-elect Tina Paillet FRICS. There will also be a supporting team, including myself as head of thought leadership and analysis, head of public affairs for AEMEA Sander Scheurwater, and head of media relations Rebecca Hunt.

Once you have been accepted as an official observer, that continues as long as you want. So we can, and will, participate in future COPs alongside organisations in similar professions, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, World Green Building Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Related article


RICS signs up to climate action charter

Read more

LJ: What's the starting point this year?

TS: Earlier this month, the UNFCC published a report synthesising information from 168 nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Essentially, every country has an NDC that sets out how it will reduce emissions to stay below 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, of global warming, as well as achieving net-zero carbon by 2050.

This year's synthesis report is a global stocktake, where we can see how we are performing against our agreed targets. The fact is the world is not moving fast enough.

One of the key things discussed at COP27 last year in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, was the 'just transition', which aims to ensure that countries in the Global South are not being detrimentally affected by the move to net zero, checking it is not hampering their development goals, and working out how can they be compensated for loss and damage caused by climate change-related extreme weather events. There was also discussion about how to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and keep to the 1.5°C target. We know more rapid action needs to be taken to get to net zero by 2050.

So the legacy issues from COP27 are to continue the conversation about how we stay at 1.5°C, how we finance it, whether we can make sure it's inclusive in terms of gender and protected peoples, as well as from an economic perspective for the Global South. So that's our starting point.

LJ: How does this all shape the agenda for Dubai?

TS: The key part of the agenda this year is how we fast-track the energy transition and slash emissions before 2030. Part of that is about looking back at what countries have promised in the past and holding them to account.

There's a lot of talk about biodiversity and how we put nature, people, their lives and livelihoods at the heart of climate action around the world to protect us from the consequences of global warming, such as increased flooding or wildfires.

There's also an emphasis on ensuring this is the most inclusive COP ever. Making sure indigenous groups such as islanders are represented, as well as women and all those marginalised sections of society who probably don't have a voice or ability to act on climate risk.

I think the challenge for this year is negotiating how to rapidly decarbonise industry, markets and countries. What are the key areas that we need to decarbonise? What mechanisms can we use to get there? From a surveying perspective, that opens up a whole world of opportunities.

LJ: What will the outcomes of COP be for RICS members?

TS: The main things for members to know about our attendance at COP are that we will:

  • showcase the role that RICS has in helping the built and natural environment decarbonise, deal with climate risk and promote and protect biodiversity
  • demonstrate the ways in which members are already strategically and practically working to achieve net zero by 2050; we have a series of case studies that illustrate this.

We will continue to champion our members, and to show through their work the impact that they're having, whether on a very small scale – for instance, on a farm or an individual home – right up to the scale of mega and giga-projects.

As well as the work we do to support them through standards, guidance, intelligence through our data and insights, products, professional development and knowledge, this advocacy for our members means we keep up our end of the bargain.

We want to be at COP because our members have a vital role to play in reducing carbon. And this agenda is generating a demand for them and their services. If we do our job right, governments and other stakeholders will realise the value of our members.

The long game is to include our standards in legislation and to mandate that people, firms, and clients must use a chartered surveyor for certain jobs, whether that's performing a whole-life carbon assessment or looking at land measurement or retrofit. Our job, then, is to equip our professionals with the skills and knowledge and expertise to fulfil that demand.

'We want to be at COP because our members have a vital role to play in reducing carbon. If we do our job right, governments and other stakeholders will realise the value of our members'

LJ: What are the opportunities for surveyors?

TS: If you think about the whole life-cycle perspective of property – from the land used for development through to the construction process and managing the building in use – each surveying profession has a role to play.

It might involve measuring progress, because we know what gets measured gets done. So this will affect the way the profession advises clients and comes up with strategies for them.

Some professionals say 'But I'm a general practice surveyor,' or 'I work in a very specialist sector such as rights of light, for example, in a small town in the UK.' If they don't work for one of the big firms that deals with global contracts or projects, they ask ' What does COP mean for me? '

Well, think of the retrofit agenda. In the UK we need to get our residential building stock up to a higher standard, from an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of D to C. If you take government policy out of the equation for the moment, surveyors have a significant opportunity to advise people how to do that. They could look at the fabric of buildings, at insulation, at how to bring in more green materials on construction sites, and at reducing embodied carbon.

That's where WLCA comes in. It enables you to make accurate assumptions about the carbon that an asset – whether it's new or existing – will emit over its lifetime. The role of the construction sector in lowering emissions is fundamental, because they will be able to ensure that they are building something that is as energy-efficient as possible.

From a property management perspective, surveyors are providing strategic advice on how to reduce operational carbon emissions and looking at how developments can incorporate more renewable sources of energy.

In the land sector, meanwhile, biodiversity loss is a huge issue. There's a role for surveyors who manage land in helping to protect and enhance biodiversity. And for those involved with investment in and management of trees, at whatever scale, to assist with the sequestration of carbon. Our current edition of Valuation of Woodlands and Forests is helpful in this regard. 

From a planning perspective, biodiversity net gain of 10% will be a legal requirement from January 2024 and RICS surveyors are already thinking about their role in ensuring developers make this provision. 

LJ: What challenges does the profession face?

TS: Of course the challenges are great. Even though 80% of the buildings that will be with us in 2050 have already been built, we're going to need to construct a city the size of Paris every week from now to 2050 to respond to future population growth.

We need to work out how to do that in a just way, because most of this building is going to happen in the Global South. I think that, because of our standards and expertise, the role of the profession there is to work with countries that need to get these skills and capacities off the ground. This clearly speaks to RICS' public interest remit under our Royal Charter.

From a construction perspective, the current edition of the International Cost Management Standard, (ICMS 3), is designed to help surveyors control cost and carbon. Together with WLCA, this offers a framework for construction professionals that from a built environment and economic perspective will help countries to develop. And it will minimise the harm that development does to the environment.

Surveyors are part of the solution, and the profession has the opportunity to create more sustainable practices and advice and guidance across the built and natural environment.

Tim Smith is head of thought leadership and analysis at RICS

Contact Tim: Email |LinkedIn

Tell us how you include sustainability in your projects

Whatever you're doing, at whatever scale, wherever you are in the world, we would like to hear from you. We want to share knowledge from and stories about the profession and the work you're doing, so everyone can see what is being done.

Contact the journals team or, if you are attending COP28, email Tim who would be delighted to hear from you.

Related Articles


go to article How to achieve Legal/regulatory compliance competency


go to article RICS publishes guidance for valuers operating in the US


go to article Fresh case stresses care needed with letters of intent