Buildings Are an Ideal but Overlooked Climate Solution
In her speech before the United Nations in September 2019, Greta Thunberg called out the assembled world leaders for their stubborn adherence to the status quo in the face of an escalating climate crisis. “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual?” she said.
Perhaps no sector better illustrates this need to do more than the buildings sector. The International Energy Agency recently found that by 2050, we can cut 87% of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by pairing energy efficiency with clean electricity technologies that are already available. That puts us well within reach of what science tells us is necessary to stabilize the climate: reaching net-zero emissions by the middle of this century.
Yet, fewer than 1% of buildings are zero carbon today.
We are confronted with a paradox, then: The single best means to fight climate change cheaply while improving human health and productivity is the same sector lagging the pack. Technical solutions abound for the building sector. But to break the status quo, we also need grander ambitions and the belief we can do it. Broader awareness that zero carbon buildings are viable, flexible and affordable right now can help industry and policymakers get out of the current rut.
Buildings Are a Massive, Cheap Climate Solution
Buildings represent nearly 40% of global energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions, far more than the entire transport sector. Of all the emissions reductions possible through 2030, buildings are by far the largest source of low-cost reductions. In fact, Rocky Mountain Institute’s research found that investments in building efficiency like increasing natural daylight and ventilation have been widely undervalued, even by the climate science.
Decarbonization opportunities in the buildings sector add up to roughly the equivalent of emissions reductions opportunities in agriculture, industry, energy supply and forestry combined. In addition, because buildings are long-lived assets, averaging 40 to 100 years of life, their emissions are “locked in” for longer than emissions from most vehicles, power plants or other forms of heavy infrastructure. So it’s doubly important to make the shift to zero-carbon buildings now.
What’s troubling is that headwinds have intensified. Emissions from buildings are set to double by 2050, rather than drop. This is due to a combination of factors: a slowdown in energy efficiency gains, from 3% annual improvement to 1.3%, and a growing need for floor space around the world. It would be like if you chose to jog on a treadmill set to sprinter speed. We are falling off the track.
Workers insulate a building in China. Good insulation, air quality and lighting cut buildings’ energy use, and they also improve occupants’ health. Photo by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory/Flickr
Crucially, improved buildings deliver substantial societal benefits. By improving indoor air quality and lighting, green buildings improve the health of their occupants and neighbors. While energy savings are themselves valuable, adding public health to the equation makes it even clearer that zero carbon buildings are good investments. The value of occupants’ improved health from efficient heating and insulation can be 10 times greater than the value of a building’s energy savings. Better buildings can also reduce the cost of living, spur economic development, make public service provision cheaper and more. What’s more, WRI research shows that zero carbon building policies are already feasible in multiple markets and climates.
Zero Carbon Buildings Aren’t Just for the Rich
Despite all of this opportunity, here we are. Behind and trailing ever further back. It’s evident that the buildings sector needs a shot in the arm. Beyond awareness, what’s missing is political ambition and financing to drive market change.
The private sector has the technology and know-how to deliver net-zero carbon buildings, and companies want to make progress. For example, in June 2019, the American Institute of Architects voted “overwhelmingly” to call on its 94,000 global members to “exponentially accelerate the decarbonization of buildings, the building sector, and the built environment.” But the private sector needs clear and compelling signals from policymakers and building owners that will unlock finance and enable market change on a much bigger scale.
This Tesco Lotus in Thailand is Asia’s first zero carbon store. Buildings present a massive opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions cheaply. Photo by Tesco PLC/Flickr
While roughly 70% of countries’ 2050 climate commitments mention buildings, only 46 call out specific buildings-related policies, making this a rich area for increased national ambition. Less than one third of countries have mandatory building energy codes or certifications and only 18 countries have codes targeting existing buildings.
At the recent UN Climate Action Summit, WRI with Propel Energy Partners helped launch a multi-partner, multi-year initiative called Zero Carbon Buildings for All intended to convey that green buildings are not exclusively the domain of technologically advanced or wealthy countries. This initiative will leverage the combined leadership of government, industry and civil society to drive policy ambition, as well as more financing so projects can actually happen. More than a campaign or declaration, Zero Carbon Buildings for All will provide direct assistance to governments ready to decarbonize their buildings by 2050.
We invite governments, financial institutions, and corporations or design firms to commit to the decarbonization of buildings in different ways:
- National governments, by signing statements of intent to create roadmaps for zero carbon building policies (city governments are invited to sign onto World Green Building Council’s sister Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment).
- Financial institutions, by providing expert input and technical assistance to policy roadmaps to unlock flows of finance, with an aim of hitting $1 trillion mobilized by 2030.
- Corporations and firms, by providing expert input and creating effective frameworks for cost-effective industry change (corporations that own a great deal of real estate can commit to decarbonize their buildings via the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment).
Countries that sign onto Zero Carbon Buildings for All will receive technical support for developing national policy roadmaps and action plans from a network of local and international experts. The Global Environment Facility has signaled their intent to provide the first funds. Industrialized countries are invited to commit to the decarbonization of their own building sectors and are particularly encouraged to financially support implementation in developing countries.
National leadership together with private sector innovation: that’s how we break the status quo and turn the climate paradox that is the buildings sector today into the leading climate solution it ought to be.TAGS: buildings, climate, energy efficiency, greenhouse gases
Architects at a Mass Timber round table note that we have to build great urban spaces at reasonable densities.
There was a fascinating panel discussion in Toronto recently, an international round table on Mass Timber. We have covered the work of Andrew Waugh, and toured Richard Witt’s 80 Atlantic Avenue, but Alan Organschi of Gray Organschi Architecture first made the point that what we build is as important as what we build it out of, suggesting that we need higher densities.
The point was really driven home by Do Janne Vermeulen of Team V Architecture in Amsterdam. She reiterated that if we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions, we have to think about how we live and how our urban spaces are designed before we even start to think about buildings.We have to think about how we get around before we start building, and then we have to build tall, to get the kind of densities we need to accommodate our growing urban populations. (I would rather she said “build dense” because, as Andrew Waugh has noted, you really don’t have to build tall.)
Alan Organaschi slide/CC BY 2.0
This is a point that I have tried to make before. Alan Organschi showed this slide that says the building sector is 49 percent of GHG emissions, but what is the building sector and where does it end? When I went to University, architecture and urban planning were taught under the same roof. Some of the best urban designers and planners are in fact trained as architects. Architecture doesn’t stop at the front door and urban planning or urban design take over; they are interrelated. Or as Jarrett Walker has tweeted,
Jarrett Walker Tweet/Screen capture
Years ago in an important Worldchanging article, Alex Steffen wrote, “What We Build Dictates How We Get Around”:
We know that density reduces driving. We know that we’re capable of building really dense new neighborhoods and even of using good design, infill development and infrastructure investments to transform existing medium-low density neighborhoods into walkable compact communities. Creating communities dense enough to save those 85 million metric tons of tailpipe emissions is (politics aside) easy. It is within our power to go much farther: to build whole metropolitan regions where the vast majority of residents live in communities that eliminate the need for daily driving, and make it possible for many people to live without private cars altogether.
Emissions by sector/ Architecture 2030/CC BY 2.0
If you look at the Architecture 2030 pie chart of emissions by sector, they put buildings at around 40 percent, and transportation at 23 percent. But what is transportation? The majority of it is from cars, which are mostly driving between buildings. The next biggest transport item is trucking, because trains worked between dense transport nodes but we all now want overnight delivery to our front porches in the suburbs. Steffen was right; how we built out our cities determined how we and our stuff gets around. It’s all about planning and urban design.
Emissions from transportation/EPA/Public Domain
And what are the biggest items in the Industry sector? Most of it is likely supporting transportation, making cars and highways and bridges. I don’t think it is a stretch to claim that architecture and urban planning together are responsible for 75 or 80 percent of our carbon emissions.
Do Janne Vermeulen slide/CC BY 2.0
I have said much of this before (see Why our cities should be wood, walkable, resilient, and sort of dense), but thought it wonderful to see prominent architects at a Mass Timber discussion talking about planning and density being such an important part of the discussion. I was particularly taken with Do Janne Vermeulen’s emphasis on urban space. Because, to reiterate, what and where we build is as important as what we build it out of.