The built environment is responsible for 39% of greenhouse gas emissions, but the sector is dangerously off track when it comes to decarbonisation. In the latest issue of The Ethical Corporation we look at efforts to overcome the challenges in the UK, U.S., Europe and Asia, and the drive to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of cement and steel

“Insulate Britain” scarcely seems the type of inflammatory messaging to inspire hundreds of activists to bring Britain’s busiest motorway to a standstill for three hours. Yet the Extinction Rebellion offshoot managed to do just that earlier this month, sparking skirmishes with enraged motorists, and arrests by police.

The little-known group had two demands: that the UK government immediately promises to insulate all social housing in Britain by 2025, and bring in a legally binding plan to retrofit all homes by 2030 “as part of a just transition to full decarbonisation of all parts of society and the economy”.

Such extreme tactics may be controversial, but they do call much-needed attention to a sector that is truly the elephant in the room when it comes to the climate crisis.

The buildings sector is far from being on track to decarbonise, despite the 'build back better rhetoric' in the wake of Covid 19

Buildings are responsible for 39% of global emissions and 35% of global energy use, with their  energy and water use contributing 28%, and building materials and construction 11%. Alarmingly, the UNEP and the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction say the sector is far from being on track to decarbonise, despite all the “build back better” rhetoric in the wake of Covid 19.

Nor do buildings figure prominently in many of the climate action pledges that countries will be bringing to the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow. Among the 194 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, just 104 have committed to improving building energy efficiency to hit their 2030 and 2050 net-zero carbon targets, and only 68 countries currently have national building energy codes, necessary to mandate reduced emissions in new buildings, the UNFCC says.

And as we reported when The Ethical Corporation looked at the building sector last April, energy-efficiency is only improving at a derisory 1-2% a year.  Yet according to the U.S. non profit Architecture 2030, about two-thirds of the building area that exists today will still be standing in 2050, so a steep rise in energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings will be required to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

(Credit: Image_Vulture/Shutterstock)

On top of this, another 230bn m2 of new floor area is expected to be added to the global building stock by 2060, equal to adding an entire New York City every month for 40 years.  Architecture 2030 is calling on building sector professionals iworldwide to design all new projects, renovations, landscapes, cityscapes, and infrastructure to be zero-carbon from today if we are to have any chance of staying within the UNFCC’s 1.5C guardrail.

The UNEP and the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction point out that achieving net zero for buildings can yield multiple benefits beyond protecting the planet. Green buildings are among the biggest investment opportunities, estimated at $24.7tn globally, and every $1m invested in retrofits and efficiency measures in new build could create nine to 30 jobs in manufacturing and construction.

So what is preventing the global community from rising to this challenge? In this Autumn issue of The Ethical Corporation magazine we try to answer that question by taking stock of global efforts to tackle emissions from buildings.

Mark Hillsdon opens the issue with his report from the UK, where Insulate Britain is far from alone in fearing that Boris Johnson’s government is failing to get to grips with the sustainable heating and cooling agenda – in contrast to some of its leading cities, including Glasgow, which will host COP26 in November.

The fundamentals of steelmaking haven't changed in 100 years, but technologies are emerging that could make a dent in emissions this decade

Cities are also in the spotlight in Sarah LaBrecque’s report from the U.S., where President Biden’s inability to come up with funding for the built environment, promised in the American Jobs Plan, has left CDP A-lister like Cincinnati having to continue to make do with their own initiatives.

Mike Scott writes about the critical role of banks and insurers in delivering the European Commission’s Fit for 50 climate plan, which calls for a 20-fold increase in renovations rates of existing buildings to help fuel a green economic recovery.

And Jill Baker reports on how Asia, a region in the front line of climate change impacts, is working to address spiralling demand for energy-hungry air conditioning.

(Credit: Hybrit)

The other half of the battle to reduce emissions in the built environment is the drive to cut the vast amount of energy that goes into making materials like steel and concrete. As Angeli Mehta reports, steel production was responsible for more than 10% of global emissions in 2019. The fundamentals of steelmaking – reducing iron ore to iron in a blast furnace – haven’t changed in over 100 years, but new technologies are emerging that promise to make a dent in steel’s huge carbon footprint this decade. The Climate Group's SteelZero initiative, which has 10 members, is seeking to use combined purchasing power to drive up demand for greener steel. 

Cement is the other energy-intensive workhorse of the built environment, with a carbon footprint that puts it just behind the U.S., China and India. Oliver Balch interviews Holcim’s sustainability chief Magali Anderson about what the Swiss construction giant is doing to clean up its act, and profiles some of the disruptors leading the green-concrete charge.

Mark Hillsdon, meanwhile, looks at companies that are doubling the climate benefits by applying circular economy principles to reducing embodied carbon, innovating with bricks made from construction rubble to roads and schools made of plastic waste.

And we conclude with a comment piece from Giles Bristow, director of programmes for climate solutions charity Ashden, who explains how impact investors can help turn down the heat for the two billion people who lack access to cooling by backing low-carbon innovators in the Global South.

We hope you enjoy this special issue of The Ethical Corporation. We will be back at the end of this pivotal year for climate action with an issue focused on the energy transition.

Main picture credit: Mike Blake/Reuters


UNEP  Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction  COP26  Climate Group  energy efficiency 

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