Why buildings matter in the fight against climate change

Buildings are among the biggest consumers of energy and largest contributors to global greenhouse emissions. This makes addressing sustainability in the building sector an urgent and necessary task, say experts at the International Green Building Conference 2015.

igbc opening
Building owners play a crucial role in the fight against climate change and there is increasing momentum in the green building sector to do more to reduce buildings's environmental impact. Shutterstock.com

In the process of providing homes, offices, malls and a range of other industrial purposes for mankind, the world’s buildings consume about 40 per cent of global energy production and are responsible for a third of total greenhouse gas emissions.

This could double or triple by 2050 - particularly due to rapid urbanization and industrialization in developing nations - if nothing is done to mitigate emissions, says the United Nations Environment Programme.

This makes addressing sustainability in the building and construction sector an urgent and necessary task, said experts speaking at the opening of the International Green Building Conference (IGBC) 2015 in Singapore.

The good news is there is an increasing momentum in the industry to do more to reduce the impact of buildings. In December, a ‘Buildings Day’ will be held for the first time at the United Nations climate conference in Paris, which aims to raise awareness globally on the potential of sustainable buildings to tackle climate change.

The event  – proposed by the government of France, host of the climate change conference in December – is organised by industry groups such as the World Green Building Council, the Global Building Performance Network and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Buildings Day also seeks to create a long-term global alliance within the building and construction industry so that members can leverage on each other’s capabilities, said Yves-Laurent Sapoval, senior advisor for the directorate for housing, urban development and landscapes (France), Medde-Mletr.

“We know that buildings create a chain of value and that solutions (to fight climate change) need to involve all stakeholders. There is a need to catalyse strong collaboration and targeted solutions for all,” Sapoval said.

An immediate task for the alliance will be to help countries meet, and even exceed, their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), Sapoval added. INDCs are commitments or carbon reduction targets from all nations under the UN process that are intended to help the world limit global warming to 2°C – the threshold that scientists regard as safe.

“Failure to act now can lock in GHG emissions for decades,” he added.

In its seventh year, the International Green Building Conference (IGBC) 2015 held at Marina Bay Sands from 2 – 4 Sep 2015, will gather more than 1,000 participants from more than 30 countries to discuss the latest in green building development. It is the anchor event of SIngapore Green Building Week, and is co-located with Build Eco Expo (BEX) 2015 and Mostra Convegno Expocomfort (MCE). 

To complement Singapore’s Smart Nation vision, IGBC 2015’s theme is ‘Build Green, Live Smart’.

The importance of going local

While a global network of green building councils provides the framework and support for climate change mitigation efforts, a lot of the work and solutions will have to be done locally, said Terri Wills, chief executive of the World Green Building Council, based in the UK.

In other words, it is the task of local green building councils, which now number about 100, to help mitigate climate change, she said.

The World Green Building Council, a network of national green building councils, is now the world’s largest international organisation for the green building sector influencing the green building marketplace.

The WGBC’s mission is to strengthen green building councils in member countries by connecting them to a network of knowledge and support. 

Green building councils around the world should have two primary goals: the first is to build net zero buildings “everywhere, as much as possible”, Wills said, and the second, to push for deep retrofits in existing buildings.

“But what’s important is that solutions must be tailored to each country,” Wills said.

We know that buildings create a chain of value and that solutions (to fight climate change) need to involve all stakeholders. Failure to act now can lock in greenhouse gas emissions for decades.

Yves-Laurent Sapoval, senior advisor for the directorate for housing, urban development and landscapes (France), Medde-Mletr

“We know for example that London, where I live, 80 per cent of buildings that will exist in 2050, exist today; but the converse is true in India. Two-thirds of buildings that will exist in 2030 don’t exist today. So we need different solutions in different markets,” she said. 

The councils are also contributing to the dialogue on national policy in many countries. In the European Union, for example, 13 green building councils are working with their governments to co-develop national renovation strategies. This ensures that governments are aware of the concerns of the building and construction sector  and that the sector knows that policies will be positive for their business.

In some countries, green building certifications are being used by building owners to raise funds. In Australia, for example, the Green Building Council has partnered with the Climate Bonds Initiative to allow Australian property owners to use their Green Star performance data to support Climate Bonds certification. 

This means that they can use the same set of environmental performance data to get a green building certification and apply to financial regulators to issue climate bonds. That will help the property owners attract a new source of funding from large-scale institutional investors seeking climate-friendly assets.

Climate - or green bonds - are bonds issued to raise funds for climate change projects; these might range from clean energy to energy efficiency projects to climate change adaptation ventures such as flood defences.  

“We are talking to the Climate Bonds Initiative to do this around the world,” Wills said. The Climate Bonds Initiative is a UK-based non-profit group working to mobilise bonds as the chief source of funding of climate-related projects.

Governments matter

Wills and Sapoval also urged governments around the world to join the growing green building movement. 

Singapore and China are two examples where the authorities have taken the lead in greening their buildings. 

Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has been working with governments in Southeast Asia - as well as the United Nations Environment Programme - on research, policy and capability-building, said CEO John Keung. 

“We are working on building capacbility within (Southeast Asian) countries so that practitioners in the sector have the expertise to retrofit, to build green buildings in the most cost-effective manner,” he said at the plenary session.

The latest research project that the BCA has launched is the SkyLab, a rotatable testing site for energy-efficient building technologies for the tropics. Researchers will be able to carry out tests at any angle relative to the sun and wind’s direction, and test their inventions in a high-rise urban setting under tropical weather conditions.

“The whole intention is to look at new innovative designs or material and to see if we can do something to make them very useful to green buildings in the tropics and subtropics,” he explained.

“And of course we hope to share our findings with the countries in the region. And I think it’s really very important for every country to come on board and get something done (about climate change).”

In China, regulators have focused on implementing green and energy efficient practices in both new and established buildings, said Professor Wang Youwei, chairman of the Green Building Council China, who also spoke at the opening plenary.

“We have set very ambitious targets to make our buildings green and will spend at least 41 trillion RMB on clean energy technology over the next decade or so,” he said. This investment will help drive energy conservation and efficiency in industrial sectors, transportation and construction as well as the adoption of nuclear and renewable energy.

Green building space in China has grown 154 times since 2008 and the country has overtaken the United States in terms of green gross floor area, according to a report released in July by global real estate consultancy CBRE.

This is set to grow further as China’s State Council Green Building Action Plan of 2014 stipulated that state-invested projects and public buildings, as well as any single building bigger than 20,000 square meters, must meet the standards of its 3-star green building rating system administered by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD).

The Chinese government is also offering subsidies to certain projects, Prof Wang said. For two-star green building projects, the central government will subsidize building developers 45 RMB per square meter, for three-stars, 80 RMB per square meter.

A key priority for the Chinese government is also raising awareness among the young so that the momentum in green buildings continues, Wang said. Together, the government, industry and educators can make an impact on climate change, he added.

“It’s crucial for us to continue to this work,” he said. “If we can make the young realise the importance of green buildings, we will have hope for a better future.”

Eco-Business is producing a special e-newsletter featuring stories on the proceedings at IGBC 2015, kindly supported by City Developments Ltd and the Building and Construction Authority. Sign up to receive the newsletter here.

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