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New alliance seeks to tap major climate potential of building sector

Buildings are responsible for a third of all greenhouse-gas emissions and are seen as the single easiest and most effective way for cities to make significant climate contributions.

Labourers work on the construction of a commercial building in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, December 2013. Globally, buildings are the source of a third of greenhouse-gas emissions. (Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters/Landov)

Buildings and the construction sector have received unusually pointed attention at the Paris climate summit, which continues through this week. For many that have been fighting for such recognition for years, this is none too soon: Taken as a whole, buildings constitute around a third of all global greenhouse-gas emissions and a third of all energy use — a figure that could rise to 50 percent by 2050.

The centrepiece of this new priority on energy efficiency in buildings is an alliance of 16 countries and more than 60 groups that have pledged to help their national governments meet their formal emissions-reduction pledges through green buildings — and assisting in keeping the world’s average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, the key goal at the centre of the Paris talks.

That effort, the Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction, was announced last week at an official day set aside for focus on the sector’s significant but as yet largely untapped role in climate action. The alliance is being spearheaded by the French government and the United Nations Environment Programme.

[See: All of Citiscope’s COP 21 coverage from a cities perspective]

For the building sector, a global goal of staying below the 2-degree threshold “means avoiding at least 50 percent of projected growth in energy consumption through mainstreaming of highly energy-efficient, near or net-zero energy or energy-plus new buildings, and a deep renovation of the existing stock of buildings by 2030,” according to a background document on the new alliance. “However, there is still no mainstream demand for low … emissions buildings.”

Meanwhile, current urbanization trends mean that particular emphasis needs to be placed on the rapidly growing cities of the developing world. With those urban expansions taking place right now, not acting today could lock cities into unsustainable patterns for decades to come.

“On current trends the building sector will lock communities into energy demand at 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050,” the document states. “Alternatively, transforming markets to enable rapid widespread adoption of today’s state-of-the-art policies, design concepts, materials, and technologies could reduce building energy demand to almost 50 percent of 2005 levels.”

[See: What Melbourne learned cutting emissions from ‘1200 buildings’]

Taking such steps could avoid more than 3 gigatons of new carbon-dioxide emissions by the middle of the century, supporters say. But for that to happen, a transformation will be needed at all levels of the building sector. The new alliance, then, is seen as a significant step toward that transformation.

“The U. S. Green Building Council is excited to see the community of businesses, national governments and advocates coalescence to advance high-performing buildings as a critical piece of the climate-change solution,” said Elizabeth Beardsley, a senior policy counsel at the U. S. Green Building Council, one of several dozen such bodies around the world.

She continued: “The alliance is significant, in the context of COP 21, in collecting commitments that will help achieve the scale-up in building efficiency that is recognized as the fastest, least-cost means of achieving significant carbon reductions.”

[See: Five things cities want to see in a Paris climate agreement]

Two-thirds of opportunities

There is much ground to make up. Although the COP 21 process leading up to the Paris climate talks has resulted in an unprecedented number of countries (and cities) contributing specific pledges on how they will reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions in coming years, a relatively small number of those plans included explicit focus on energy efficiency in buildings, new or old.

“On current trends the building sector will lock communities into energy demand at 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050.”

Of 167 of these national plans, only about a quarter committed to action in this area, according to a review by the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank. Nonetheless, this is seen as evidence of significant — and new — policy understanding on the part of national governments, say researchers following the issue closely.

“The awareness of buildings as contributing a third of global emissions is finally coming to light,” said Jennifer Layke, director of the Building Efficiency Initiative at WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “The technical experts have known for decades that we needed strong building codes and appliance standards. But moving the discussion from the technical community to the general public and to executives has been a challenge.”

[See: Guiding, standardizing city climate actions a key focus at Paris summit]

A new report from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Arup, a consultancy, finds that some two-thirds of the most potent climate actions that cities could take in coming years involve buildings.

“The first priority actions comprise a group of 2,332 actions that should be achievable and could have a high impact on climate change, but which are not being widely implemented,” the report states. “This includes actions from eight city sectors; an enormous 66 percent of them are within the Buildings sector.”

Further, the report finds, nearly a third of all climate actions that cities are not yet taking likewise have to do with buildings. “Even on a proportional basis,” the researchers write, “Buildings is still a sector with below average action uptake.”

Linking through Habitat III

WRI’s Layke began focusing on energy efficiency in buildings in 2009. One of her first tasks was to undertake a review of the types of projects that developing countries were putting forward to receive climate finance. At the time, she says, there were “only a handful” — but six years later, that number has grown substantially.

[See: COP 21 must encourage climate funding to reach the local level]

A significant part of the problem has been figuring out how to get the public, and their political representatives, to take note of the issue.

“Messages around ‘consume less’ are not appealing — especially when, in many parts of the world, people need to have access to more energy,” she said. “So how do we move forward? By ensuring that we focus on energy services that support these needs and do so with less waste.”

“Habitat III is an important opportunity to focus on how we connect the climate, energy and development agendas … We will look to Habitat III as an opportunity to link the building-efficiency agenda into the process.”

Jennifer Layke
Director, WRI Building Efficiency Initiative

A key part of the new Global Alliance on Buildings and Construction, then, will be around coordination between public, private and civil society initiatives on efficiency and “green” building. It will also link this issue to national planning processes and to a series of budding international frameworks.

These frameworks include the new Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 7, the energy-focused goal, includes a specific focus on energy efficiency, aspiring to double the global rate of energy-efficiency advancement, while Goal 11 — the urban SDG — looks solely at city systems.

These frameworks also include the run-up to next year’s Habitat III conference on cities, which could prove to be a particularly potent opportunity to put in place global efficiency guidelines around new and retrofitted buildings.

[See: Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure]

“Habitat III is an important opportunity to focus on how we connect the climate, energy and development agendas,” Layke said. “There are often separate ministries and leaders who have siloed managerial and governance mandates. Creating a uniting vision about urban efficiency and climate is a critical step … We will look to Habitat III as an opportunity to link the building-efficiency agenda into the process.”

New norm?

The announcement of the alliance’s formation was bolstered by news of initiatives already underway.

Some 1,300 actions have been launched related to buildings by the alliance’s partners and networks around the world, organizers said. And at the COP 21 Buildings Day, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, announced that a new set of energy requirements for buildings will be incorporated into the city’s construction code.

[See: Tokyo carbon market for office buildings is all ‘cap’ and not much ‘trade’]

That same day, 25 national Green Buildings Councils announced a goal of renovating or certifying more than 1.25 billion square metres of buildings as “green” building space over the next five years. Organizers note that this would be equivalent to twice the size of Singapore. They also pledged to train some 127,000 new “green building” professionals by the end of this decade.

In addition, the World Green Building Council has committed to achieving “net zero carbon new building and energy efficient refurbishment of the existing building stock by 2050,” according to a statement released last week. All 74 of the affiliated national Green Building Councils have voiced support for this vision.

“Today marks a turning point in history,” Terri Wills, the head of the World Green Building Council, said in Paris. “Committing to an area of green buildings twice the size of Singapore over the next five years is just the start — in 10 to 15 years’ time, this action will catalyze a green-building revolution which will see sustainable buildings become the norm.”

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Carey L. Biron

Carey is news editor for Citiscope, where he oversees coverage of the global debate leading to the U. N.’s Habitat III conference on cities in October 2016.