Climate report: the good, the bad, and the opportunity to seize

Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first chapter of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). With input from hundreds of thousands of scientists, the report is widely considered the authority on the future of climate change. This fall, Autodesk will be participating in COP26, the annual UN climate change summit. It’s an opportunity for policymakers and partners to come together to reach agreements on how to tackle climate change. The data provided in AR6 will largely steer those conversations.

At Autodesk, we have long heeded insights from the IPCC and applied learnings to our own Impact Strategy. Our takeaway this year is that consensus amongst scientists is clearer than ever. Society must take immediate action to reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Here’s the unsettling news: the report makes it clear the world has locked in a certain amount of climate change. The greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere last for years. Even if everyone brought emissions to a screeching halt today, the heat of the excess energy stored in our oceans would continue warming the Earth’s average surface temperature for decades. The changes caused by past and future greenhouse gas emissions will be irreversible for centuries, if not millennia. Continuing our current trajectory will mean a future no one wants to imagine.

But there is good news here, too. There are pathways available today that could help avoid the worst consequences of climate change. But each of us must act now, globally and aggressively—across business, across industries, and across governments.

Reducing the impact of the built environment is mission-critical

The built environment contributes 40% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. That figure includes more than just the energy it takes to operate buildings. It also includes embodied carbon, or the emissions from construction and the manufacture and transport of building materials and supplies.

Digitalization of the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry offers great opportunity to change this trajectory.

The benefits of 3D building information modeling (BIM) extend our ability to design a project in rich detail with insights to help improve the energy, carbon, and structural performance of a building’s design.

A digital twin for AEC is a dynamic, up-to-date replica of a physical asset or set of assets—whether it’s a building, a campus, a city, or a railway—that brings together design, construction, and operational data.

BIM can improve collaboration and workflows for teams up and down the project pipeline, helping to minimize errors and waste. And the cohesive documentation of every design and material decision allows users to turn models into digital twins, or exact digital replicas of a physical asset. Digital twins can drive operational efficiency to help reduce waste and improve energy usage.

I’m encouraged by the progress being made through industry collaboration with initiatives like the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). EC3 is a free, open-source tool that gives designers, builders, and owners more access than ever to data about the carbon load in their potential supply chains. More transparency enables project teams to make materials selections with lower climate impact.

Generative design, which leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning, is a powerful tool for building design as well as manufacturing. Designers and engineers provide a project’s parameters and can weigh multiple design options that meet their goals. We’re already seeing generative design deliver on its promise with greener buildings and infrastructure, and in the creation of products like electric vehicles and more efficient aircraft.

Creating infrastructure made to handle the effects of climate change

The first chapter of AR6 warns that human-induced warming is intensified for people living in cities. Further urbanization paired with frequent hot extremes will increase the severity of heatwaves. With 90 percent of all urban areas built on or near coastlines, most cities are particularly vulnerable to the rising sea levels, storm surges, and extreme rainfall events associated with climate change.

The effects are self-evident with episodes like the recent flooding in New York City. New York’s subways had already flooded twice this summer, and it’s happening elsewhere. Climate-driven torrential rains are half of the problem. But aging infrastructure often makes a bad situation worse.

A modern, ‘smart’ apartment complex is constructed.

Digitalization is the key to building more sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including water systems. Innovyze’s digital twin technology is unlocking new possibilities for water infrastructure modeling, analysis, and engineering. These comprehensive network models provide real-time monitoring and alerts about potential storm surges and service interruptions that help network managers predict what might happen in the next hours and days.

Acting now to change the future

The world still has the chance to avoid the 1.5°C and 2°C increase projected by the IPCC. But everyone needs to drastically eliminate greenhouse gas emissions now—this decade.

We were one of the first companies to set science-based greenhouse gas reduction goals. Now we’ve attained net zero and we’re doubling down with even more ambitious targets that help keep us in line with the IPCC’s recommendations. We will continue to follow the findings of the IPCC as it releases additional chapters to the AR6 and evolve our Impact Strategy accordingly, just as we have for over a decade.

But large-scale change requires industry partnership and collaboration across sectors. That’s why a central part of our Impact Strategy is partnering with our customers to help catalyze their sustainability journeys. We don’t just hand them technology—we enable them to build innovation strategies that meet their business objectives including carbon reduction. By harnessing data, automation, and insights, companies are finding sustainability goals can align with their business goals.

This chapter of the IPCC report underscores the message we’ve been hearing from our customers: this work is more important and urgent than ever before.