New Realities: Climate Action in Challenging Times

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of climate change and the need for climate action had risen to the top of the list of priorities for many AEC firms. Many architects, engineers, and contractors have seen their work significantly altered from natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, or wildfires, as well as the impact of climate such as changing temperatures, precipitation, and sea-level rise. Some had seen rapidly growing interest and requirements from clients and public entities. These issues continue to be urgent with approaching regional and global deadlines to address mitigation and adaptation so that permanent global damage can be reduced. In addition, the COVID-19 experience has highlighted major inequities in the impact of climate change and disruptions across communities.

To gain more insight into how the industry is addressing climate action during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cameron MacAllister Group conducted a study among A/E firm leaders in the U.S. and Canada. This study is the fifth in our New Realities series, based on a survey of 57 firm principals between November 23 and December 14, 2020. Participating organizations ranged in size from fewer than 25 people to more than 500.

Below are some findings from the survey. The full research report can be downloaded here.

Importance of Addressing Climate Change Before the COVID-19 Pandemic
Most survey respondents were giving priority to climate change prior to the pandemic. A majority said climate change was one of several important issues, and more than a quarter said it was a top priority for their firm. None indicated that it was seldom considered.

Focus on Climate Action over the Next 12-18 Months
Overall, the pandemic’s impact has had a heightening effect on the reporting firms’ approach towards climate action. All of those who said climate change was a top priority is maintaining that commitment, and in fact, more than a third of those firms plan to increase their focus on climate change. Of the firms that saw the issue as one of several important ones, about half said they would increase their focus on climate action a little, and 18% plan to increase it a lot. Just over a third said they would make no change in their focus. Of the firms that previously had climate action as a lower priority, most plan to increase their focus. The fact that no firms said that climate change was seldom considered prior to the pandemic indicates that the firms who responded are already well aware of the need to address the issue. Therefore, it’s no surprise that none of these firms said climate action would be less important.

Climate Change as a Major Issue for Clients in the Next 12 Months
As AEC professionals, we must choose how to serve our clients in the realm of climate issues: either leading the way and providing them education when needed or waiting and taking a cue from them as to their interest and commitment to the topic. Based on the results, the vast majority responding to this survey desire to lead the way. Almost three-quarters of the group are comfortable discussing climate change with all or most of their clients. More than a third (39%) will start with the issue on every project. This is more than the firms stating that climate change was previously a top priority for them.

Clients’ Commitment to Addressing Climate Action in the Next 12-18 Months
More than half of the firms participating expected their clients to be much more or somewhat more committed to climate action, some in response to the election results. However, 42% of firms thought there would be no change or even a reduction in clients’ commitment due to conflicting demands increased by the economic recession and pandemic. External factors like regulations and incentives are also significant.

Concerns About Current Climate Action
The survey included an open-ended question about a firm’s concerns in moving forward with climate action. Interestingly, almost half of the concerns reported are issues internal to design and construction practices. These issues stem from a lack of a clear climate action plan or a limited ability to implement one throughout the design process. Other factors, like competing priorities, enhanced by the current conditions or client commitment, make up about 40% of the challenges. Fewer than one in six of the respondents have no concerns and/or are energized by the current state.


The Interconnected Situation is Before Us
In addition to the health and economic stresses of the pandemic, there are concerns about social and equity issues, all of which could distract from attention to climate action. The connection between climate change and the incidence of pandemics is becoming more widely understood, and the inequitable impact of climate events and stresses has been proven. It is essential to recognize the connections between issues, realizing that one solution can contribute to solving multiple problems.

Need for a Defined Plan
Many firms have a stated goal for climate response but indicate that they lack a cohesive climate action plan; others have put a plan in place and are challenged to implement it across all projects consistently, especially during the pandemic. Quite often, the plan is not known or not fully embraced firmwide. It is important to engage a cross-section of stakeholders in developing a comprehensive approach to climate action that integrates with other firm goals, such as water and energy efficiencies, social equity, and health/wellness. There must be a team, including firm leaders, who can set measurable goals (such as the AIA 2030 Commitment), define accountabilities, and implement the plan. In some cases, firm members assume “someone else” is taking care of the issue or that it will be added at a later phase. Based on our experience, the firms that have the greatest success are those who have a clear plan that is known, understood, and prioritized for firm operations and before the start of each project.

Planning for Collaboration with Clients
The way we rebuild our industry post-pandemic will depend on how we can collaborate with our clients. As design and construction professionals, our clients want us to provide beautiful, high-performing, well-constructed buildings. In many cases, they expect to be educated about climate action by the architects and engineers they hire and to be helped to address it. To achieve this, a firm must have a proactive approach that understands each client’s motivation and equips staff with the knowledge and the language to promote that approach. Many of the firms surveyed are leading the way in this regard and are examples for the industry.

Support for Continued Transformation
There are many firms and organizations that have climate action plans that can be used as examples for firms who want to write their own. The most important part of this work, however, is the process; being inclusive of everyone you hope will implement it. Often the discussion of issues is more important than what goes on paper

Some resources for design professionals include the AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence, the resources offered by, and conferences of innovative thinking such as Engineering Change Lab. The Design Build Institute of America (DBIA) also offers a climate change contract addendum. Many respondents expressed growing optimism about making a difference

By being the trusted advisors who both provide information about the conditions, and solutions for the individual project, AEC professionals have the opportunity to increase their relevancy and their value to the clients.