Around 40% of global carbon emissions come from buildings. Of that percentage, around a quarter comes from the construction process, and the rest is down to the way we power, heat, cool, light, and ventilate our buildings. In other words, the main target for energy reduction should be the operational phase of the building lifecycle.
Despite this, amazingly, according to the Building to COP26 Coalition:
Of the 186 countries that have submitted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 136 countries mention buildings, 53 countries mention building energy efficiency, and 38 specifically call out building energy codes.
Very few of those 186 countries have in place performance metrics for building decarbonization, either in the use of renewable materials at the construction phase or operational energy reduction once the building is occupied. The ambition of #BuildingToCOP26 is to halve emissions from the built environment by 2030, and “establish the built environment as a major solution provider to the climate crisis.” This will require far more countries to adopt robust decarbonization policies with effective implementation mechanisms.
It will also require further adoption of the UN Race to Zero campaign, a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions and investors for a net zero recovery. There are now 27 operational green banks around the world; around 1/3 of the global banking sector has agreed to align its work with the Paris Agreement, supporting solar and EV adoption, and investing in emergent technologies that will help to meet or bring forward Net Zero targets.
In his address yesterday, former President Barack Obama suggested that although there will be a transition cost for those working in carbon-heavy industry, there will also be a considerable jobs benefit as we make the transition to Net Zero: in the United States, there are now more people working in green jobs than in the entire petrochemical industry. Not only that, top-tier workers will inevitably prefer companies that support a clean energy economy; we have written before about the evidence that links reduced staff turnover to sustainable office space, and the same is true of tenants, who prefer to live in green buildings.
Construction and design are important. Buildings like the Powerhouse Telemark and the Floating Office Rotterdam have the potential to capture the world’s imagination, and renewable construction techniques are revolutionizing architecture around the world. But the unglamorous day to day of building operations is more important still. It presents us with a potentially much larger carbon saving. As the Committee on Climate Change make clear in their various pathways to Net Zero, changing occupant behaviour will have an impact, too. But the main area of focus should be power: heating, cooling, lighting and other operations must be founded in sustainable energy.
IoT represents the best pathway to operational energy reduction, because it allows building operators to understand how energy is being used, how it can be reduced, and how operations can be streamlined going forward. Using sensors to monitor built assets is becoming increasingly common, and case studies suggest that the long term return more than outweighs initial investment.
In some ways, the message of Glasgow has been sobering: the ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement have not been met, or not fully. As President Obama put it yesterday, “progress is partial… there are times when the future seems somewhat bleak.” But there was also a note of optimism, since the technology and investment and commitment required to meet carbon reduction targets has never been more within our reach. It will be up to the private sector to spearhead the transition to Net Zero, and the past few years have shown us that considerable rewards are on offer for early adopters and innovators.