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The building industry needs better data to decarbonise

The construction sector, responsible for 30 per cent of global emissions and energy use, has the tools it needs to cut carbon. But the lack of data and systems of deployment is hampering the decarbonisation drive.

The building sector must decarbonise by 2050 in order to keep global warming below two degrees. But it will fail without better data and changing its practices more quickly. The tools are available to do so, but the industry must find new ways to deploy them effectively, said construction chiefs at a recent event.

This warning call was sounded at the World Sustainable Built Environment conference (WSBE) earlier this June. Held every three years, this edition of the conference took place in Hong Kong, where sustainability experts, researchers and construction leaders noted that the industry had an information problem.

Gregor Herda, regional housing advisor, United Nations Human Settlement Programme, told delegates: “Vast, significant policy decisions are currently being made in an ‘information-poor’ environment.”

Based in India where he coordinates sustainable housing for the UN agency, he said life cycle and energy data for a lot of building products are scarce. Carbon conversion factors—formulae that calculate resultant carbon emissions—are not comparable for different products, especially new technologies. This poses a problem not only for the Indian government but the entire global south.

Sharing her work with the audience, Jennifer Layke, director, Global Energy Program of think tank World Resources Institute, said that her organisation was partnering The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate to urge urban leaders to look at how they can adopt new finance models and information systems that do not yet exist in order to accelerate the decarbonisation of the built environment.

“City leaders have very little understanding of what their building inventories are, and there is very little information on the energy consumption rates of those buildings,” she said. “What you can’t measure, you can’t manage, and there’s a need to build up the ability to manage buildings.”

As a result, the building sector is “not at all on track for global temperature targets at two degrees or below”, goals laid out in the Paris Agreement on climate change, said John Dulac, energy technology policy building sector lead at the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA).

Despite the surge in construction, especially in rapidly growing economies, “the building sector has not really changed that much,” he said. According to agency data, the increase in total floor area globally has outstripped improvements made in energy performance. This means that energy demand is still on the rise.

This is troubling because the building and construction sector globally consumes a third of all electricity generated and produces a third of carbon emissions. In order to keep global temperature rises to below two degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, all new buildings from 2030 must be zero-carbon, while the world’s entire building stock must have attained carbon neutrality by 2050, according to the World Green Building Council’s latest report.

But Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary and architect of the Paris Agreement, has issued a shorter term challenge to the industry: To begin an “organised, gradual descent” from peak global emissions by 2020, so that the world economy can transition to a decarbonised economy.

Now vice-chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, Figueres was a keynote speaker at the conference. Noting the long life span of buildings, she warned: “If we lock in the level of emissions through the built environment, we lock ourselves out of the possibility of having a stable environment, economy, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

“We’re standing here making a choice as a species. The [consequences of that] choice will be felt for hundreds of years.”

The deployment dilemma

A second point that repeatedly surfaced at the conference was that the industry has the technology and tools in place to reduce carbon.

“We need a major market push to move away from inefficient technologies and into high-performance energy efficient technologies,” said IEA’s Dulac.

He highlighted the impressive speed at which energy-saving LED lights had gone from market debutant to 30 per cent share for lights in just four years as an example of how quickly energy-efficient technologies can be widely adopted.

He urged delegates: “Push the market forward, put in place energy performance standards for construction, renovation and building equipment, and force the market to move to more energy efficient solutions, especially since we know that these solutions are cost effective.”

There also needs to be more financial backing for the building sector to meet carbon neutral objectives and pull forward more efficient technology, he said.

Treating the sustainability performance of buildings as a governance issue was another approach advocated by WRI’s Layke. She said that in WRI’s examination of the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement—actions that each country pledges to take to reduce carbon emissions—fewer than a third had mentioned the built environment agenda.

Yet, technologies to reduce energy use and emissions “are available and affordable today, [but] we don’t have the systems in place to deploy them as quickly as needed”.

Linking the national agenda, such as the NDCs, to local, city-level agendas is therefore crucial in order to look at creating change in the environment, such as lifecycle assessments for building equipment, she said.

Push the market forward, put in place energy performance standards … and force the market to move to more energy efficient solutions … we know that these solutions are cost effective.

John Dulac, energy technology policy building sector lead, International Energy Agency

Data is a powerful tool to decarbonise the built environment, said Arno Schlueter, professor of architecture and building systems at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich. For instance, authorities could consider offering subsidies based on data in order to achieve more bang for the buck when it comes to retrofits, he said.

ETH Zurich analysed a 300-building community in Switzerland, collecting 50 different types of building data and crunching the numbers to see where investments into retrofits would yield the biggest cuts in emissions.

The study found that by retrofitting 80 out of the 300 buildings, they would be able to slash carbon emissions by 80 per cent with only a fraction of the money invested compared to the conventional approach. By investing according to the data rather than offering subsidies across the board, more is made out of the public money invested, said Schlueter, who is also principal investigator, Future Cities Laboratory at research institution Singapore ETH Center.

Ultimately, what the building sector needs is exponential transformation rather than incremental change, commented Figueres. “The building sector is important but has not traditionally moved as quickly towards low carbonisation as sectors such as energy.”

With the next WSBE taking place in 2020, she said: “My challenge to the industry is that, at the 2020 conference, every person will come up and say, here’s what we’re doing to decarbonise the economy.”

“I have deep faith it is going to happen.”

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