Buildings: Our Biggest Climate Challenge
The road to net-zero carbon buildings
Every building in the world — every home, office, school, factory— needs to be net zero carbon by 2050 to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees C.
Cities account for more than 70% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. About half of those emissions come from the energy consumed in buildings for lighting, electricity, heating and cooling. Moreover, cities in emerging economies will account for the majority of global growth in energy use after 2030.
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This is far more challenging than greening electricity generation or transportation. Few of the world’s estimated 1.7 billion buildings are net zero carbon today. However, emissions from all those buildings must be halved by 2030 to meet climate targets, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In addition, indirect building-sector emissions from construction needs to fall 60% to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees C.
It’s not going well.
Need-to-Know: Buildings need to cut their emissions 50% by 2030
We need a five-fold improvement in emissions reduction in the building sector to get on track to meet the 2030 target, according to the GlobalABC’s global status report.
Interesting fact: Commercial and residential real estate combined is valued at $326.5 trillion, far more than all global equities and debt securities combined.
Greening the building sector requires trillions of dollars of investment to met the 2030 target. The rapidly-growing cities in emerging economies will require $24.7 trillion alone says the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
China is leading the way with a commitment to spend $13 trillion on low-carbon or green buildings from 2016-30.
More than 1,000 cities and local governments have committed to halve their emissions by 2030 as part of the C40 Cities Race to Zero coalition .
Examples that illustrate the business case for green buildings:
Green buildings in Tokyo’s competitive office property market fetched a 6.5% premium on rents over the past decade. This “green premium” is in addition to the 25% to 40% in energy-savings a typical energy retrofit can provide.
New York City’s iconic Empire State Building underwent an energy retrofit in 2009 and cut its energy use nearly 40%, saving $4.4 million a year in energy costs. A deeper energy retrofit is underway to cut energy use an additional 40% by 2030.
Green buildings are a higher-value, lower-risk asset than standard structures and typically achieve higher sale premiums and attract and retain more tenants, according to the IFC.
Net-zero-carbon building (ZCB) do not have any carbon emissions associated with their annual energy demand. Deep-energy efficiency retrofits of existing structures can reduce a building’s energy use 75% or more. That reduces the amount of clean energy a building will need to be a ZCB.
This requires a whole-building approach, where design and architecture, construction materials including insulation and windows, heating, cooling, electricity and air exchange equipment are all integrated.
How to do a household energy retrofit:
super-insulate existing walls, floors, and attic space;
replace doors and windows with energy-efficient units;
install high-efficiency heat pump for heating and cooling;
put high performance insulation in the foundation walls;
use effective air sealing and moisture control;
install energy-efficient water heater, lighting, and appliances.
We have the technology to make buildings net zero carbon but in most places regulations and or the business model are missing.
— Emma Stewart, the WRI Ross Center For Sustainable Cities
Need-to-Know: Low-carbon mandates, laws, regulations, and building codes are rare
New York City is one of the few places that has a law requiring buildings to cut emissions 40% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Vancouver is another, with a target of 50% reduction by 2030.
One major reason your city, town or development doesn’t have similar regulations or building codes to get low-carbon buildings we need, is because a small group of people, mainly developers and gas companies, oppose them. After all, developers don’t care how energy-wasteful a building is since they won’t be paying the energy bills. And so they spend a lot of money lobbying political leaders at all levels.
Until next time, be well.