Global built environment needs to urgently meet Paris Agreement goals

Built Environment

According to a report prepared by the International Energy Agency and coordinated by UN Environment which was released in Paris earlier this week, time is running out to reform the buildings and construction sector’s energy performance. Preventing the Paris Agreement to remain on track, energy intensity (per square meter of buildings) needs to improve 30 percent by 2030. 

The Global Status Report 2017 discovered that the total floor area reached an estimated 235 billion square meters in 2016 with this figure set to almost double over the next forty years. 230 billion square meters of additional buildings will be constructed which is the equivalent of adding the floor area of Japan to the planet, every single year until 2060.

Buildings and construction account for 39 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions, when upstream power generation is included. Between 2010’s and 2016’s population growth, the rising floor area per person and the greater demand for energy services contributed to an increase in new energy demand in buildings equivalent to all of the final energy consumed by Germany during the same period. 

The report goes on to mention that the clock is ticking in part because more than half of construction expected to 2060 will take place in the next twenty years – two-thirds in countries that do not have mandatory building energy codes in place.

However, it highlights many opportunities to deploy energy-efficient and low-carbon solutions, and points to many examples across the globe that show the goals can be met with clear and concerted efforts.

Over the next 40 years, the world is expected to add the equivalent floor area of Paris to the planet every single week,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, at the international conference

Energy efficiency in buildings: how to accelerate investments” on the fringe of the One Planet Summit in Paris.

This rapid growth is not without consequences.

While the energy intensity of the building sector has improved, this has not been enough to offset rising energy demand. Ambitious action is needed without delay to avoid locking in long-lived, inefficient building assets for decades to come,” Birol said.

The Paris Agreement pledges to fall short of hitting the 4.9 Gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (GtCO2) annual emissions reduction that could be achieved if countries were to pursue strategic low-carbon and energy-efficient buildings technology deployment. CO2 emissions from buildings and construction rose by nearly 1 per cent per year between 2010 and 2016, releasing 76 GtCO2 in cumulative emissions.

The 30 per cent improvement in the sector’s energy intensity would require a near-doubling of current buildings’ energy performance improvements to more than two per cent each year to 2030, the report says. This means near-zero energy, zero-emissions buildings need to become the construction standard globally within the next decade.

The rate of building energy renovations also needs to improve from one to two percent per year to over two to three percent in the coming decade. Such retrofits are particularly important in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, where roughly sixty-five percent of the total expected 2060 buildings stock is already built today.

Similar to many areas linked to the Paris Agreement, the building sector is seeing some progress in cutting its emissions, but it is too little, too slowly,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “Realizing the potential savings of the buildings and construction sector requires an all hands-on deck approach – in particular to address rapid growth in inefficient and carbon-intensive building investments.”

The energy savings potential from improved building envelope performance improvements is huge: globally, high-performance buildings construction and deep energy renovations of existing building envelopes represent a savings potential more than all the final energy consumed by the G20 countries in 2015.

The report points to many examples of buildings that work, such as the zero-energy Edge building in Amsterdam. The building maximizes natural light intake and solar electricity production, and uses smart technologies such as intelligent ventilation systems that are responsive to sensor data or user commands. Additional examples, include best practice management, such as waste sharing service that recycles construction and demolition waste in France.

The GBCSA is one of 14 green building councils participating in the World Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero project, which aims to promote and support the acceleration of net zero carbon buildings to 100% by 2050. Net Zero or Net Positive is a practice that can accelerate the GBCSA’s end goal of complete market transformation. It is not about slowly pushing the built environment industry towards betterment, but rather about inspiring the end goal now” says Dorah Modise, CEO of the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA). She believes that the report emphasizes the urgent need to rapidly transform the built environment in Africa.

Regional Chair of the Africa Regional Network of Green Building Councils, Thulani Kuzwayo, adds that these findings are particularly pertinent for Africa: “Not only is Africa one of the continents most acutely feeling the effects of climate change today, by 2050 Africa will be home to an estimated 1.3 billion more people than it is today. That’s more than half of the world’s projected population growth of 2.4 billion people – with 80 per cent of buildings that will exist in 2050 yet to be built. This presents an opportunity to build right from today, and create green jobs, skills and training, and sustainable growth through widespread green building.”

The report identifies ways to unlock the potential benefits, including:

Ambitious and transparent commitment. Effort is needed to bring forward strategic policies and market incentives that signal the vital role of buildings and construction in meeting the sustainable development goals.

Building energy codes and certification. Deployment of improved building energy codes and policies, including certification, labelling and incentive programmes, are needed in all countries.

Energy-efficient, low-carbon and affordable technologies. Wide-scale adoption and investment in high-performance, low-carbon solutions are key to sustainable buildings and construction. 

Investments and finance. Transforming buildings and construction will require a major shift in financing and investments. This includes building the business case for investors, while providing information and financing tools that remove risks and uncertainties for decision makers.

Read the full report here: Global Status Report 2017