What does the Paris agreement mean for the green building industry?

If COP21 had been the Global Warming Academy Awards, buildings would have won all the ‘Supporting’ Oscars.

An unusual analogy perhaps, but fitting to the fact that the spotlight was focused on buildings in December’s COP21 summit like never before. December 3rd marked the inaugural ‘Buildings Day’, in which the ‘supporting’ role of building emissions to climate change was globally emphasised. Throughout the summit it was widely reported that buildings demand 40% of the world’s energy consumption, and are most nations’ largest emissions source – contributing an almighty third to global greenhouse gas output. And leaders have listened: 91 countries have committed to buildings-related targets in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).

Great news then. Our leaders appreciate the role of buildings in causing climate change and are committing to changing it. And even better, one of the key messages from the green building sector is that we already have the technology and design capability to slash energy consumption by an estimated 30-50%! However, all this good news must be treated with caution. The current rate of new construction is equivalent to the building of a new Manhattan every 35 days. Time wasted equals guaranteed emissions – locked in from inefficient building design.

So what do these findings mean for the green building industry? There are four key messages emerging from post-COP literature:

  1. Increased awareness of the importance of retrofitting

The COP21 summit saw a growing awareness of the carbon-saving value of retrofitting existing building stock. The EU has made a particularly bold claim that emissions from buildings can be almost entirely eliminated – 95% by 2050 is the target. In 2050, the vast majority of our current building stock is likely to be standing. It has been estimated that the energy efficiency of these existing buildings need be improved by at least a factor of four to achieve these greenhouse gas reductions. A surge of renovation and reconstruction will undoubtedly provide economic opportunities for the retrofitting industry, but how to improve an entire national building stock in a cost-effective way is the big challenge.

  1. Urgent intervention is needed to achieve net-zero carbon new buildings

Of equal importance to the retrofitting of existing building stock is the design and construction of net-zero carbon new buildings. By 2050, the expected growth of floor area will more than double the area covered by existing buildings – so this really must go hand in hand with renovation and retrofitting. Architectural innovation in developed countries is bringing zero-carbon building dreams into reality, but it’s the rapidly urbanising markets such as China and India where this point is particularly vital. The ‘intervention’ must be from developed to developing: a transfer of knowledge and technology to ensure that the areas with greatest population growth are making optimum use of a global resource of knowledge. But how can this knowledge be shared? See point three…

  1. New professional coalitions are developing an emphasis on shared knowledge

One of the greatest successes of COP21 is the developing mind-set of climate change being a shared responsibility. This positive outlook led to an unprecedented coalition of businesses, organisations, cities and nations to form the Global Alliance of Buildings and Construction. The aim of the Alliance is to ‘speed-up and scale-up’ the potential carbon savings of the green building sector by sharing best practice internationally. This will be vital in guiding the infrastructural development of newly industrialised nations. The Alliance now includes 1.3 million architects worldwide, and provides much-needed alignment to international carbon-cutting efforts. As well as shared knowledge, COP21 has facilitated shared performance. A Common Carbon Metric – a universal measuring stick for building emissions – allows more comparable performance monitoring and will (hopefully) drive greater greenhouse gas reductions across the sector.

  1. An increasingly quantifiable cost

Greater interest into the potential carbon-savings of the green building industry has dragged into focus the hand-held question of the cost. And it’s not cheap. Unlocking the massive potential greenhouse gas savings of a greener building stock will require twice the current investment in energy efficient buildings. By 2020, approximately $220 billion will be required to fund retrofitting and net-zero carbon building development to stay on track with reduction targets.

It is encouraging that the Global Environmental Facility and Green Climate Fund were both re-affirmed in the Paris Agreement. These funds are intended to facilitate climate-related investment in developing countries, and can possibly foot some of the financial burden of renovating entire national building stocks (!). However, economic and political barriers are not restricted to developing nations. With even our own government (a post-Kyoto emission reduction leader) slashing policies supporting the green building industry just months before the COP21 summit, climate change is clearly not everyone’s national priority. For that reason, it is vital that funding increasingly goes to NGOs and multilateral building programs whose sole priority can be working to reduce building emissions worldwide.

So what does the Paris Agreement mean for the green building industry?

There is clearly huge economic opportunity for the green building industry in the coming years. But it’s the question of who is going to foot the bill that remains unanswered. The increasing quantification of the cost of carbon alongside the development of a universal metric will hopefully create an economic imperative for governments to improve their building stock – and shame those that are lagging behind.

It is possible for energy consumption in both new and existing buildings to be cut by a substantial percentage by 2020, and with further research and innovation in design and energy generation a net-zero carbon building stock may not be out of reach by 2050. International partnerships, both politically and professionally, are definitely a positive step in achieving this goal. It is undeniable that the buildings sector has taken a leap in national priorities since the COP21 summit. However with decisions as long-lasting as bricks and mortar we must act fast in order to make our necessary contribution to emissions reduction targets.

Let’s think ahead to the Global Warming Awards of the future. Decisive action today ensures buildings play a smaller role tomorrow. By 2050, let’s kick them off the red carpet entirely.

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