As we make buildings greener, residents and workers need a voice

Construction workers are pictured at the construction site of an apartment building in Pasay, Metro Manila in the Philippines

Construction workers are pictured at the construction site of an apartment building in Pasay, Metro Manila in the Philippines May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

On the final day COP27, world leaders must drive a rapid but just transition of our built environment

Amol Mehra is director of industry transformation at Laudes Foundation, and Ambet E. Yuson is general secretary of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).

‘Human settlements’ is a key theme on the final day of COP27, but to meet our Paris commitments, the built environment must become central to the climate transition.

Adequate housing is recognised as part of the right to an adequate standard of living in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Still, for millions of people this right is out of reach.

Today, at least 100 million people in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region are overburdened by their housing cost, with young people finding it particularly difficult. Worse yet, in a global region of relative affluence, 22% of low-income residents live in a dwelling with a leaking roof, rot or damp walls, floors or foundations.

We work, live and meet in buildings. They shape all aspects of our lives, including their design, ownership and occupancy. And the built environment contributes almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.

A man walks with bottles to collect water from the public water supply as more than half of Mexico faces moderate to severe drought conditions, in Monterrey, Mexico June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril
Go DeeperHow 'chief heat officers' keep cities cool as the world warms
A medic attends a severely acute malnourished child affected by the worsening drought due to failed rain seasons, at the paediatric stabilisation ward within the Lodwar County Referral Hospital (LCRH) in Turkana, Kenya September 26, 2022
Go DeeperLoss and damage funding tests global climate solidarity at COP27
A general view of the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq, October 13, 2022
Go DeeperIn Iraq's Babylon, age-old building techniques heal climate scars

Construction is also a huge employer. It continues to be Europe’s largest industrial workforce: 15 million people work directly as part of the building supply chain (7.5% of the total EU workforce) and a further 33 million migrant workers are indirectly connected.

The transition our built environment must go through to meet climate goals, therefore, poses an opportunity to deliver better living and working conditions, but there are also huge social risks.

For example, many low-income residents across Europe live in the most energy-inefficient and uncomfortable homes. As severe heat waves continue to hit the continent, European buildings are ill-equipped to deal with extreme temperatures and are putting elderly residents at significant risk.

Workplaces are increasingly at risk of disruptions and injuries, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. In addition, for those working in material production, such as cement and steel, jobs look increasingly insecure. Access to schemes to retrain for new, low carbon industries, is insufficient.

It is vital that residents and workers have a central role in deciding what the built environment’s transition looks like, so that no one is left behind.

Workers at the centre

A ‘just transition’ is a process developed in the trade union movement. Its core concern is that the transformational processes needed to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis pose major risks of leaving large groups of workers and communities behind.

That is why last month the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) announced a new partnership with Laudes Foundation, focused on strengthening workers' position in the process of decarbonising the built environment.

Workers and communities should be at the centre of environmental debates. However, too often, they are not adequately considered or listened to. The shadow of France’s "Yellow Vests" protests over fuel taxes and living costs looms large among climate policymakers, but its lessons are quickly forgotten.

For transitions to be just, they cannot be top-down. Transformations in the built environment will depend on the workers who make them happen. From the extraction of building materials in quarries and forests, to the production of green cement and the construction of infrastructure and buildings, workers are critical to build our decarbonised future.

If the benefits for workers and communities are not made clear and the social risks are not addressed, we will not reach our goals and the climate transition will simply fail.

Human settlements will be a defining part of any transition. But to truly improve our buildings, and support those that build them, we need a ‘Buildings Breakthrough’ – as part of the ‘Breakthrough Agenda’ launched at COP26, which strengthens international collaboration to accelerate action across sectors like steel and hydrogen.

The COP agreement must not only recognise the importance of the built environment in reducing emissions, but also promote a construction sector which provides quality jobs and lives up to international labour standards.

This is a crucial time to amplify voices on the just transition, and for inspiring leadership and momentum from cities, industries and policymakers.

There is a window of opportunity for a new narrative on systemic change in the built environment. It must be a core focus of action at COP27.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Climate
  • Net-zero
  • Cost of living
  • Workers' rights
  • Green jobs

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context