Buildings Are an Ideal But Overlooked Climate Solution

Installing a green roof. Zero carbon buildings are viable in many places right now. Photo by Ziggy Liloia/Flickr

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 daylighting and natural 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.

Workers insulate a building in China. Greener buildings with good insulation, air quality and lighting save on energy, and they also improve occupants’ health. Photo by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory/Flickr

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.

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.

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.

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

At the recent UN Climate Action Summit, WRI 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.

This blog originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Emma Stewart is Director of Urban Efficiency and Climate, and Director of Urban Finance for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Graham Pugh is a Partner & Co-founder at Propel’s Principals. He is a consultant with World Resources Institute. 

Matt Jordan is a Partner & Co-founder at Propel’s Principals. He is a consultant with World Resources Institute. 

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