Cutting emissions

Because buildings account for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions, the sector has a critical role to play


  • Cristina Gamboa

13 September 2019

We need a new action plan to reduce carbon emissions drastically or we run the risk of catastrophic and irreversible climate change. But how can the built environment sector step up its ambition?

The World Green Building Council (WGBC) believes the industry can play its part by working with government, investors, communities and consumers to achieve net zero-carbon buildings.

At Futurebuild 2019 in London in March, Prof. Myles Allen of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said: 'Every year we are releasing 40bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and counting on future generations to scrub it out with technology that's not even been invented yet.'

This is the scale of the climate challenge we face. Yet, as far as buildings are concerned, we know how to prevent these emissions in the first place. Projects around the world – from mosques in Amman through affordable housing in Hawaii to high-density multi-use precincts in Sydney – are demonstrating that zero-emission buildings are possible across all markets and building types.

Enhancements in energy efficiency and reducing reliance on fossil fuels with the use of renewable energy are good not just for the environment but for our health, well-being and economies.

But are we moving fast enough? The message from 2018's IPCC special report is clear: we need to act now to hold global temperature rise to 1.5°C – and 2020 is the turning point.

As buildings account for 39 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions – and with emission reductions from the UK's 29m homes stalling, according to the national Committee on Climate Change – this sector has a critical role to play.

Buildings account for around 34 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and can be broken down as follows: residential: around 64 per cent commercial: 27 per cent public sector: ten per cent.
  • residential: around 64 per cent
  • commercial: 27 per cent
  • public sector: ten per cent

In 2018, the WGBC launched the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment at the Global Climate Action Summit. Signed by a large number of businesses, cities, states and regions, the commitment is part of the council's Advancing Net Zero programme to build market capacity towards 100 per cent net zero-carbon buildings by 2050 and promote best practice in local contexts.

Among the signatories is the Berkeley Group, which builds ten per cent of London's new homes and is currently developing zero-carbon transition plans for all future developments.

In May, the UKGBC set up a framework for the national construction and property industry to ensure new and existing buildings become net zero-carbon by 2050.  This will help our sector work collectively towards decarbonisation and prepare buildings that are fit for the future.

The government has an important role to play, too. Its Clean Growth Challenge aims to halve the energy use of new buildings by 2030 – a welcome target, but one that needs to be accompanied by clear, data-driven regulatory signals. Addressing issues such as the performance gap through regulation that ensures green buildings fulfil their design promises is vital, so that energy is not wasted.

WGBC has proposed three recommendations for immediate action.

1. Create new ownership models for the built environment, led by the financial and investment sector, to mitigate climate risk.

2. Increase demand from building users by demonstrating the benefits of green buildings and using incentives such as lower energy bills to make them attractive.

3. Provide data to inform decisions and create regulatory road maps that foster policy certainty and encourage the right carbon-reduction outcomes.

We must respond to the zero-carbon challenge, and take action now.

Cristina Gamboa is chief executive officer at WGBC cgamboa@worldgbc.org

Related competencies include: Sustainability

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