“Code Red” IPCC Report: What It Means for the Building Sector

We are just about out of wiggle room, and buildings need to change. Now.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in early August released part one of its sixth assessment report—a comprehensive analysis of the climate impacts that we can expect under various emissions scenarios. The upshot of this 4,000-page tome? “The viability of our societies depends on leaders from government, business, and civil society uniting behind policies, actions, and investments that will limit temperature rise to 1.5°C,” said the United Nations Secretary General in a statement on the report. “We owe this to the entire human family, especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities and nations that are the hardest hit despite being least responsible for today’s climate emergency.”

With temperatures already up 1.2°C since before the Industrial Revolution, and the world currently on track to hit 3.0°C, keeping climate change in check is going to take radical effort across all sectors. The Secretary General specifically called out coal-fired power plants, but that does not exempt buildings, which, according to Architecture 2030, are responsible for almost 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The IPCC will gradually release three more parts of its sixth assessment, including one that will analyze strategies for keeping warming to 1.5°C.

In the meantime, building professionals already have a pretty good idea of what to do: reduce operational energy use, slash upfront embodied carbon (with an eye toward reusing existing buildings in particular), and electrify buildings in combination with grid integration to reduce the need to fire up dirty “peaker plants.”

Clients aren’t asking for it? Don’t wait for them to take the lead. We simply cannot design, renovate, or construct projects according to today’s lax standards. We already know that sustainable design and building strategies don’t have to cost more: we have 30-plus years of green building knowledge to leverage.

Consider what Miller Hull has done. This architecture firm is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to climate, purchasing offsets to get all its projects to zero carbon emissions. If this were a widespread practice, it would encourage passive design strategies to reduce operational carbon emissions. These strategies are often cost neutral, and they help reduce energy use, mitigating the need for offsets on the part of the firm.

At the very least, if you’re an architect and haven’t done so already, it’s time you joined the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment. This program asks firms to track and, over time, reduce operational energy use across their portfolios with a goal of zero carbon emissions from new buildings and major renovations by 2030. The American Society of Structural Engineers has a similar program for embodied carbon called SE2050. Contractors can get in on the game through the more holistic Contractor’s Commitment.

The building industry changes slowly, but luckily we’ve been working on this for a while now. The U.N. Secretary General called this report “code red for humanity,” adding, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” Now is the time to pull together to stave off the worst climate disasters.

For more information:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


Published September 7, 2021

Melton, P. (2021, September 7). “Code Red” IPCC Report: What It Means for the Building Sector. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/code-red-ipcc-report-what-it-means-building-sector

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September 20, 2021 - 5:58 pm

Thanks for the wake-up call. I question the whether we really do know what to do. There have been huge strides in reducing operating emissions and a growing awareness and some progress on reducing embodied carbon, but these are still aimed at some version of business as usual, i.e. continue building.  Yes we need new buildings, but you can argue that at least in the near term we also need to keep extracting and burning fossil fuels, and many of us don’t have a problem calling for banning fossil fuels right now.

I think it is time to consider a moratorium on new construction along with a massive investment in existing buildings and infrastructure. Lance Hosey, god bless him, proposed this back in 2014 and got hammered for saying  it. But what was really radical about his proposal was his call to repurpose the entire building industry to renovate and upgrade existing buildings and infrastructure. This not only cuts all emissions from new buildings, it drastically reduces operating emissions from existing buildings, which are more than double all new building emissions.

Acknowledging that a total ban on new construction might be impossible, Lance noted two possible exceptions: 1. only build on brownfield sites - remediates toxic soils, increases density, preserves habitat; and 2. require all new construction to be net zero - makes net zero technologies more available and affordable

Check out the article: Stop. Building. Now – Lance Hosey, Huffpost

Repurposing the economy at this scale is not unprecedented, it happened during the Great Depression, during WWII and more recently during the pandemic where we came up with a vaccine in record time. Government definitely needs to step up, but if the construction industry called for a moratorium on building that might get someone’s attention.

And hey, it’s just a moratorium. Banning fossil fuels is forever.

September 21, 2021 - 8:57 am

I love this idea, and I think the industry is already getting used to more adaptive reuse. Maybe we could start by allowing no new construction projects in the COTE Top Ten. Now that would be something!