News Brief

Winning the Race to Zero

The UN Race to Zero campaign enlists businesses in achieving net-zero operational emissions by 2050. How does it fit in with other commitments?

cyclist approaching the finish line of a race
Photo: Dennis van Zuijlekom. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.
We may be inching toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

More than 3,000 businesses and 700 cities had signed onto the United Nations’ Race to Zero commitment ahead of COP26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties), held in November 2021. But is 2050 soon enough? And how does this commitment fit in with all the other pledges businesses are making?

Arup is one of just a handful of built-environment firms that have signed the commitment. “Campaigns like this are an important way of building momentum for climate-change action amongst the business community,” noted Rebecca Hatchadorian, Arup Americas associate principal and sustainability consultant, in an email to BuildingGreen. Before joining, Arup had already committed to achieving net-zero operational emissions across the entire company by 2030, she said.

Arup is also an American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Commitment signatory. The difference between its Race to Zero pledge and its 2030 pledge is that the former focuses on the company’s own operations—energy, purchasing, business travel, and employee commuting—while the latter focuses on Arup’s design practice.

“Our own carbon emissions are only part of our impact,” wrote Fiona Cousins, Arup fellow and Americas sustainable development leader. “Our designs of infrastructure and buildings have their own carbon-emissions impact over their life cycles, and we are beginning to work toward understanding those impacts to guide our design work.” To that end, the firm worked with the World Business Council For Sustainable Development on a study of greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment. The analysis found that “as much as 50% of the whole-life carbon emissions in building projects came from embodied carbon,” Cousins said, and that number will only get bigger as buildings become more efficient and the grid continues to decarbonize.

This highlights the fact that campaigns like Race to Zero and even the 2030 Commitment (which does not directly address embodied carbon, though the program appears to be heading in that direction) cannot single-handedly get the emissions from the built environment to zero.

Still, Nigel Topping, a UN high-level climate champions for climate action, has chastised architecture firms for being slow to sign on to the Race to Zero. In an interview with Dezeen, Topping said, “At the moment, architecture is one of the least well-represented businesses in the Race to Zero. By revenue, globally, we don't think that any of the top 50 standalone architectural practices are in the Race to Zero.”

In a scathing reply, Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, wrote that the Race to Zero “is neither highly ambitious nor providing the leadership needed at this critical time,” adding, “Net-zero emissions by 2050 means giving up on limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C as set out in the 2105 Paris Agreement on the climate.” The target date to hit that goal is 2040, Mazria argues.

But don’t ignore the potential impact of programs like Race to Zero, cautions Cousins. “Initiatives like Race to Zero are important at stimulating action; for some, this might be a starting point that leads to greater action in the future.”

For more information:

United Nations

Published December 6, 2021

Melton, P. (2021, November 18). Winning the Race to Zero. Retrieved from

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