A Climate New Year’s Resolution for 2021: Greening Construction and Building Operations

Graphic: 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction 

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

A U.N. report suggests that a major impediment to carbon reductions and meeting the Paris Climate targets is the construction and building industry. Carbon dioxide emissions from building construction hit an all-time high in 2019, and the annual rate of decarbonizing buildings has been slowing. The use of coal, oil, and natural gas for regular household activities like cooking and heating caused an increase in emissions to about 10 gigatons, according to the fifth annual report by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC).  CO2 emissions from the operation of buildings increased to their highest level yet — 10 GtCO2, or 28% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions.

Why this Matters: Building maintenance and construction create nearly 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, according to GlobalABC. As global temps rise, there will likely be an increased demand for air conditioning, which will further increase energy use. According to the World Economic Forum, for every $1 spent on energy efficiency, $37 is spent on more conventional construction processes. By 2050, nearly seven in 10 people will live in cities, and cities already consume 2/3 of the world’s energy while contributing to more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.   

Greening Construction

GlobalABC also debuted a new Buildings Climate Tracker – which looks at measures such as incremental energy efficiency investment in buildings and the share of renewable energy in global buildings.  The tracker, unfortunately, found that the rate of annual improvement is decreasing — it was down by 50% between 2016 and 2019. The authors concluded that “to get the buildings sector on track to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050, all actors across the buildings value chain need to increase decarbonization actions and their impact by a factor of five.”

Cities across the world have begun to implement regulations that could bring the world closer to bending the curve. For example, many cities are taking action to ban natural gas from new buildings, which could offset hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide. Oslo, Norway has also introduced a plan that has construction companies use electric equipment to make the building process greener.  While there was a temporary reduction in emissions in this sector in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts believe activity will pick up in 2021.

As we approach the 2021 U.N. climate summit, many countries are attempting to enact more ambitious policies. Some recommend that governments should include “green conditionality” that would encourage the construction of low-carbon buildings in COVID-19 stimulus packages. This kind of policy is already in effect — the European Commission’s “Renovation Wave” strives to double building renovation rates within a decade, and South Korea’s $130 billion dollar package that proposes constructing 230,000 energy-efficient buildings.  The Report and the new Tracker amply demonstrate the importance of reforming the construction and buildings sector to be more energy-efficient and generate lower emissions.

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