The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that buildings are the largest contributors to climate change through carbon emissions. They are responsible for around 30 to 40 per cent of global energy usage, consume a third of total resources used, and generate 40 per cent of solid waste.
But buildings can minimise their own carbon footprint when they are powered with and generate clean energy. In the face of rapid population growth and urban migration, green buildings have increasingly grown in importance and have the potential to foster a more sustainable lifestyle among urban dwellers.
This year, we saw buildings both new and old rise to the challenge of becoming more resource efficient. But greening buildings isn’t enough—tenants hold the key to lowering a building’s carbon emissions.These are the top 5 green building stories in 2016.
1. From Shanghai’s greenest, super-tall tower to Singapore’s first carbon-negative home
China unveiled its tallest building this year. The 128-storey Shanghai Tower, also the second tallest building in the world, claims to be the world’s greenest skyscraper.
The Shanghai Tower has 200 wind turbines spinning at its top which generates around 10 per cent of its electricity needs. The building collects rainwater and reuses wastewater, has a combined cooling and heating power system and uses 40 other energy-saving measures that developers claim cut 34,000 metric tonnes from its annual carbon footprint. For that, it was awarded a LEED Platinum, a top green rating issued by the US Green Building Council.
Even old buildings can go green, as the iconic Sydney Opera House proved this year. In September, it became one of only a handful of World Heritage buildings in the world to achieve a four-star rating for green building performance from Australia’s Green Building Council.
The Sydney Opera House uses energy-saving LED lights that preserve the warm glow of its concert halls, is equipped with an elaborate waste recycling programme, and runs a cooling system that uses sea water instead of fresh water, saving up to 15 million litres of drinking water per year.
Singapore’s contributionto the world this year was its first carbon-negative home. The B House opened its doors in January, generates more solar energy than it consumes, and costs the same as similar properties in the area.
2. Data centres go green
Streaming videos, downloading books and posting on social media became friendlier to the planet, thanks to internet and ICT giants like Microsoft, Apple and Google powering their mega data centres with clean energy this year.
EcoWatch reports that it takes a lot of energy to power the world’s online activities. The same amount of energy required to power 30 nuclear power plants, in fact. In response, Microsoft has moved to purchase 110 MW of energy from a wind farm, while Apple announced earlier this year that it would power its iCloud data centres with renewable energy instead of coal.
Since committing to running on 100 per cent renewable energy back in 2012, Google has bought clean energy primarily from solar and wind sources to power its 13 data centres and offices in 150 cities around the world. It has also invested in renewable energy projects of which at least 900 megawatts of solar and wind-generated electricity have been added to the grid in December.
Meanwhile, e-commerce giant Alibaba has developed a data centre tapping natural water bodies to cool its data centre in Hangzhou, the first of its kind in China.
3. Groundbreaking net zero project launched
This year, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) launched a groundbreaking project that will ensure buildings all over the world are ‘net zero’ by 2050, which means all existing and future buildings will be certified capable of generating enough clean energy on-site to meet heating, cooling, lighting and other electricity needs.
WGBC CEO Terri Wills in June announced the Advancing Net Zero project, which will pilot in eight countries where the building sector is seen to have the biggest growth in the coming years: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sweden.
Ahead of this, Australia has announced this year that its National Carbon Offset Standard, which provides a benchmark for organisations that seek to be carbon neutral in their operations, products, services and events, will be extended to include buildings, precincts and cities. The country aims to have its first officially certified and operating carbon neutral precinct or city by January 2017.
Meanwhile in Singapore, construction began this year on the little red dot’s sustainability hub: The Singapore Sustainability Academy. Besides being an example of a net-zero space, the community and non-profit SSA will serve as a venue to further advocacy, networking, training and capability-building especially among industry and sustainability practitioners.
4. Tenants hold the key to buildings’ lower carbon footprints
This year, the role of tenants in helping to achieve lower carbon footprints in buildings was also highlighted. Greenbiz reported that tenants could unlock US$5 billion a year in savings if they use spaces efficiently and update fixtures with energy-efficient lighting and equipment in the US alone.
To start this dialogue, DC-based non-profit Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), partnered with the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) to launch the Landlord-Tenant Energy Partnership. The partnership is a four-year, nationwide initiative designed to enable landlord and tenants of US commercial offices and retail stores to collaborate and ensure energy efficiency within the buildings.
The City of Sydney’s Better Buildings Partnership released an updated green lease standard designed to help tenants and landlords deliver stronger sustainability performance together while Singapore also revised its Green Mark, the national certification for green buildings, with a new focus on passive design, integrating nature into buildings, and helping occupants reduce their carbon footprint.
5. Green buildings for the people
While the movement to green buildings around the world can benefit the planet, research points out that ultimately the quality of life of the occupants is at the heart of building green.
Eco-Business reported why Amsterdam’s the Edge is a model for green offices worldwide. Completed in 2015, The Edge, an innovative and energy-effficient office building in the financial centre of Amsterdam, can sense where its inhabitants are, what their schedule is at a given time of day, and direct them to spots that are most productive for their tasks.
Meanwhile, Austrian capital Vienna almost automatically tops the list for cities that offer the best urban quality of life. As human resources consultancy Mercer notes, social policy that mantles over urban development plans – which include affordable housing, a clean, safe and fast public transit, and creating more green spaces in urban centres – are reasons 1.8 million Viennese are happy to be home.
This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 12 categories.