We’re Way Behind on Climate Targets; Can Electrification Save Us?
The score we need: 17.1.
The score we have: 8.1.
In other words, the building industry isn’t anywhere close to hitting necessary climate targets, according to the Global Building Climate Tracker. This index, begun in 2015 by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC, which is part of the United Nations Environment Programme), uses six metrics to estimate the progress of the global building industry toward full decarbonization by 2050. That’s the timeline required to keep average warming below 1.5°C and avoid the very worst impacts of climate change.
We are way off track. But GlobalABC’s “2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction” says all is not lost.
At the same time, we do need to jolt the industry on all fronts—from policy to practice and everything in between—to rapidly and equitably reduce operational carbon (emissions from building energy use) and embodied carbon (emissions associated with building materials) to zero while also responding to climate threats through resilience measures.
False hope from a pandemic bump
In last year’s report, GlobalABC’s sixth, our climate-tracker score came closer than ever to the required trajectory for 2020. Even at the time, though, report authors believed this was caused by pandemic lockdowns, which had shut down building operations and much of the construction industry. They were right; we’re worse off than ever now. “The gap between the actual decarbonization performance and the desired pathway has been widening since 2018,” according to the report authors.
“After the pandemic slowdown, the sector’s operational emissions in 2021 rebounded to 2% more than the all-time high set in 2019,” wrote Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, in the report’s foreword. Meanwhile, few policies or codes are addressing embodied carbon, and green building certifications are growing but not fast enough.
The good news
The report is not all dark. A few trends show promise that change can happen:
- More countries (up by 11%) have added building-sector decarbonization goals to their nationally determined contribution (NDC) action plans, which are detailed roadmaps for mitigating emissions and adapting to climate change.
- “Emission intensity”—the greenhouse gases emitted per unit of building space—has decreased 7% since 2015, appearing to reflect grid decarbonization.
- Participation in green building certification programs tracked by GlobalABC has increased 19%.
- More countries are regulating the efficiency of appliances and lighting products.
- Investments in energy efficiency have spiked 51.9% since 2015 and increased 16% between 2020 and 2021.
Electrification is key
Despite these silver linings, report authors speaking at a press conference at COP27 (the 27th Conference of the Parties, taking place this year in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt) minced no words.
There’s been little international action on building codes, the speakers pointed out. Growth of 11% in total building floor area since 2015 has more than offset reductions in emission intensity. And embodied carbon is an increasingly urgent sleeper issue as people in African and Southeast Asian nations finally achieve desperately needed improvements in their quality of life.
The authors are calling for structural change.
Structural change starts with rapid, widespread uptake of building electrification, according to Ian Hamilton, Ph.D., lead author of the report, professor at University College London, and a building energy use expert with the International Energy Agency. That’s because grids are cleaning up so quickly that electrifying the built environment is the fastest way to decarbonize it.
Although “things that reduce demand for energy through efficiency,” like replacing windows, adding insulation, and minimum performance standards for appliances are important, “they can take a little bit longer,” Hamilton told BuildingGreen in an interview. “The shift today is really getting started and investing in technologies that are available right now”—namely heat pumps.
The listed efficiency upgrades are also part of structural change, though—and Hamilton hopes both governments and the private sector will continue to increase their investments in efficiency in the handful of countries making progress there, and that other big emitters will soon step up and invest as well. The problem? Even though energy efficiency saves money in the long run, skyrocketing interest rates globally could be a barrier to getting upfront capital.
The third part of structural change is policy and regulations, some of which could address that very problem through programs like tax breaks and weatherization funding. But the regulatory process is even slower than scaling efficiency upgrades, Hamilton suggested.
That means a lot is riding on the private sector to equitably electrify buildings, reduce the embodied carbon of construction projects, and make the built environment more resilient.
“Comfortable, safe, and healthy”
For that to work, building professionals need to make a good case for sustainable strategies. Hamilton thinks the green building conversation is starting to shift a bit to focus more on the occupant experience, and that’s a good thing.
“Most people won’t have an understanding of what they emit,” Hamilton said. “They do understand ‘comfortable, safe, and healthy.’ We are linking those together as well, making that part of the narrative.” IAQ issues during the pandemic have helped the narrative along.
Another promising area of growth is engagement with clients on their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, as both public and private companies try to double down on “doing good in the communities they serve,” Hamilton said. The relevance of ESG programs to the building industry is likely to increase as the European Union and other nations move to standardize ESG disclosure frameworks, define specific metrics that constitute sustainability progress, and crack down on greenwashing.
But although ESG engagement can be successful in commercial real estate, reaching homeowners on a large scale doesn’t work the same way. “The tax code is one of the ways to do that,” Hamilton noted, but that “tends to benefit those who have the most. That necessitates assistance programs” for those who have lower tax burdens because of their lower incomes.
The need for circularity
The report and press conference also addressed embodied carbon, which, with operational efficiency gains and rapid international development and urbanization, could constitute “50% of emissions from the building sector in the near future,” asserted Mae-ling Lokko, Ph.D., a report coauthor, assistant professor of architecture at Yale, and an entrepreneur working with agro-waste and other biobased materials in Ghana. Lokko called on the building industry to change both design and procurement practices to address embodied carbon by moving toward a circular economy.
The report focuses on multiple strategies for reducing embodied carbon, including:
- Avoiding emissions by optimizing design efficiency and using less material in the first place
- Reducing emissions by selecting lower-carbon concrete, aluminum, steel, and glass, and seeking biobased and locally sourced alternatives
- Preventing future emissions by designing for disassembly and material reuse
Lokko highlighted a forthcoming report on circularity that will compare materials like conventional wood framing, mass timber, and “emerging biobased materials like bamboo and agriculturally derived bio-composites.” She added, “Design for disassembly has the potential to impact between 30% and 50% reductions in CO2 emissions simply by encouraging longer-life building materials and their capacity to be collected after multiple lifetimes.” But she also acknowledged that the industry has a long way to go in developing networks to ensure materials can be reused in the real world.
“The topline message is similar to others we’ve been hearing at the COP,” said Mark Radka, chief of the energy and climate branch of the UN Environment Programme at the press conference. “It’s a mix of good and bad news.”
For more information:
Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction
Melton, P. (2022, November 10). We’re Way Behind on Climate Targets; Can Electrification Save Us?. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/news-analysis/we-re-way-behind-climate-targets-can-electrification-save-us