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Buildings and Net Zero

As the IPCC show in their study of global temperature rises, ‘faster CO2 reductions result in a higher probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C’.[1] So in order to stay in line with the ambitious demands of the Paris Agreement, and the equally ambitious targets that have been established in the UK, reducing the carbon output from buildings must be a top priority and must be accomplished as fast as possible.

It is likely that over the coming years, in order to meet targets of net zero at 2045 in Scotland and 2050 in the UK as a whole, demands on the construction industry will be enhanced, brought forward, and data measurement and reporting will wherever possible be made compulsory. Since the UK and Scottish governments have each expressed their desire and their commitment to lead on climate action, to set an example to other developed nations, it is expected that massive change will have to occur across all sectors with increasing speed.

As we know, buildings account for around 40% of global energy consumption as well as 39% of global CO2 emissions and a considerable proportion of the world’s fossil fuel use. In operation as well as construction and demolition, there are steps that can and must be taken to reduce this, including a call from some for building owners to think in terms of ‘embodied energy’, encouraging more long-lasting buildings in line with calls for sustainability and an end to the disposable culture that has seen the average lifetime of a building decrease to just 60 years.[2]

In the construction phase there are of course materials that can be used to minimise lifetime energy usage: as Kiel Moe, author of Empire State and Building, puts it, we must rethink the uses of materials and enquire about the supply chain: ‘literally, how does a building come to appear in a city and where does all that material come from and what will we do with it?’[3] But we must also consider the application of technology, perhaps especially in renovating and preserving older buildings, where it can help to modernise and update structures that would otherwise be demolished, squandering embodied energy.

As the UK GBC notes in a recent report, 30% of a building’s energy use occurs over the course of its operation, mostly owing to heating, cooling, and the use of electricity. Here, too, technologies that are currently optional and not widely adopted will soon become effectively mandatory in order to meet tighter regulatory standards. As the report itself makes clear:

[The] minimum requirements of the framework will need periodic improvements and updates over the next decade, in order to increase robustness and provide sufficient stretch for industry to lead the transition to net zero whole life carbon buildings

At the same time as the industry moves towards net zero targets, advisory bodies like the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) are looking at ways to accelerate the adoption of technologies that will assist in meeting the 2045 net zero target. In order to meet these targets, we require only technology that exists already, but it must be used effectively and expediently to have a real impact, and to curb the rise in global temperatures. From the viewpoint of policy makers, buildings will be the main target of tightening regulation and legislation over the coming years.



[1] IPCC, “Summary for Policy Makers”, see: Fig.SPM1 https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

[2] https://memoori.com/continually-demolishing-rebuilding-our-buildings-is-not-smart-or-sustainable/

[3] https://yalepaprika.com/articles/in-conversation-with-kiel-moe/

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