Three lessons for the building sector from the Global Climate Action Summit

The summit in San Francisco was a rallying cry for community and business leaders around the world to step up on climate action. WorldGBC’s Joelle Chen highlights three takeaways for the building sector to go green.

Sydney bluegreen waterfront
An aerial view of Sydney's waterfront district. The City of Sydney and the Sydney Opera House are committed to operating at net zero carbon by 2030. Image: martinnemo, CC BY 2.0

Reflecting on the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco two weeks ago, the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) team and I were inspired by the range of new commitments by global leaders being made across all industries and sectors, from buildings and oceans to electric vehicles and waste.

But the true test of these pledges will be in the coming weeks and months. To realise the full potential of this climate action and to ensure they drive genuine change, businesses and governments must be held accountable for the changes our planet so desperately needs.

This is particularly true of the WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which was launched on 13 September during the Building Up to Net Zero Carbon Emissions session with 38 founding signatories. Buildings are responsible for 39 per cent of global carbon emissions. We’re advocating for this to be zero per cent by 2050. Our Commitment is here to identify the leaders helping to drive this change forward and establish a network of organisations willing to pave the way to market transformation.

The first strong and recurring message from the Summit was the need for action to deliver against these pledges in order to drive genuine change and emission reductions. The Commitment is designed to encourage flexibility in application against five stages of action: commit, disclose, act, verify and advocate.

Signatories can identify and apply processes to meet the intent of each stage in a way that is appropriate and relevant to them. This approach enables any organisation to determine their own roadmap towards decarbonising all energy related Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions—that is, direct emissions from owned or controlled sources and indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy respectively. Signatories can also choose to incorporate broader scope or impact areas, for example embodied carbon or transport emissions, to further push the market forward.

Building owners, developers and operators will need to carefully examine current energy use and the resulting emissions across portfolios; identify opportunities to reduce energy wastage and improve energy efficiency; power buildings from renewable energy sources; and report on progress against their own decarbonisation targets.   Progress is tracked through standards, including available green building certification tools, to verify the carbon footprint of a building assets and portfolios.

The Commitment was developed in conjunction with a wide group of stakeholders and ensures that pledges are converted into elimination of carbon emissions from the built environment. Business, government and non-profit organisations are united in solidarity towards a common cause and are taking responsibility for the part they can play to become enablers in the race to combat climate change.

Our second key takeaway message of the Summit is the critical role of collaboration, and the recognition that one business or pioneering government cannot achieve change alone. In order to do so, the private and public sector must support one another to develop a compelling case for others to follow, and WorldGBC’s Green Building Council network across 70 countries is well positioned to uncover the ideas and innovations that can transcend geographical borders to establish net zero carbon as the new green building standard.

To realise the full potential of this climate action and to ensure they drive genuine change, businesses and governments must be held accountable for the changes our planet so desperately needs.

An example of the significant potential of industry collaboration can be seen in Australia. The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) initiated a discussion with its members in March 2017, inviting them to chart the way forward towards a net zero carbon future. Through a year-long consultation process, the industry was able to agree upon a common definition and vision, as well as specific milestones using GBCA’s green building certification tools to drive the market.

As a result, from 2020 all new buildings seeking the 6 star Green Star rating (the highest level of rating in their certification system) will be required to use 100 per cent renewable energy, either generated on-site or procured from off-site. In addition, new buildings will be required to be 40 to 50 per cent more efficient than 2018 levels, and be incentivised to incorporate measures to decarbonise the grid, such as energy storage.

Australian companies represent a significant number of the founding Commitment signatories, further demonstrating their leadership. Five local businesses, the City of Sydney and most recently, Sydney Opera House, are all committed to their own portfolios to operate at net zero carbon by 2030, and to enable wider market transformation towards 100 per cent net zero carbon buildings by 2050. All will be supported by GBCA to develop innovative strategies to achieve their performance targets, through collaboration of private and public sector.

Finally, the success of this initiative and those launched at the Summit will be dependent on industry innovation to develop and sustain genuine solutions to achieving net zero carbon buildings at scale.

Industry must step up to enable wider uptake of net zero carbon buildings: We know they are achievable, and we know it must happen in order to meet the Paris Agreement targets. The Commitment is not prescriptive on how an organisation or government would achieve zero emissions in their buildings; but sets the leadership position, intent and outcomes to be achieved. This will foster innovation, cross-sectoral knowledge exchange and partnerships across institutions to support and innovate in an unprecedented way. Together, we can overcome the technical, financial and perceptual challenges preventing mass uptake of net zero carbon buildings and reap the rewards including job creation and boosting economies. 

Carbon is the new currency. We must be focused on how much energy a building uses and utilise existing and emerging technologies to understand more about how our buildings perform. We must scrutinise the traditional approaches to building design, renovation and demolition to ensure the opportunities to minimise carbon emissions are optimised. This must be the new business as usual for the building and construction industry.  And we can get further, faster, together.

Joelle Chen is Regional Head for the World Green Building Council’s Asia Pacific Network. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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