Buildings are an ideal but overlooked climate solution

Of all the emissions reductions possible through 2030, buildings are by far the cheapest. Research from the World Resources Institute reveals that zero carbon building policies are already feasible in multiple markets and climates.

air conditioning units in a building
A newly discovered membrane could be the solution to cooling homes and buildings without using air conditioning. Image: Peter Dutton, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 per cent 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 stabilise the climate: reaching net-zero emissions by the middle of this century.

Yet, fewer than 1 per cent 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 per cent 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 natural daylight and ventilation have been widely undervalued, even by the climate science.

Decarbonisation 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.

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 per cent annual improvement to 1.3 per cent, 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.

Decarbonisation opportunities in the buildings sector add up to roughly the equivalent of emissions reductions opportunities in agriculture, industry, energy supply and forestry combined.

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 decarbonisation 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 per cent 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.

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 decarbonise their buildings by 2050.

We invite governments, financial institutions, and corporations or design firms to commit to the decarbonisation 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 mobilised 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 decarbonise 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. Industrialised countries are invited to commit to the decarbonisation 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.

Emma Stewart is director of urban efficiency and climate at the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. This article was originally published on the WRI blog. 

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