Climate goals are at risk after Building sector CO2 emissions hit all time highs. Content Coms analyses the news – and its implications.

Building sector CO₂ emissions are the highest ever recorded – what on earth can we do about it?


Climate goals are at risk after buildings emissions hit all time highs. Content Coms analyses the news – and its implications.

The message is stark, unequivocal and frightening. Carbon emissions from buildings are rising.

On December 16, 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC) released the 2020 Global Status Report on Buildings and Construction.

It says building sector emissions hit a record high; CO₂ emissions increased to 9.95 GtCO₂ in 2019. The sector now accounts for 38% of all energy-related CO₂ emissions when adding building construction industry emissions.

There’s more; direct building CO₂ emissions need to halve by 2030 to get on track for a future Net Zero carbon building stock by 2050.

The overall message in the report is plain; global Governments must prioritise low carbon buildings with pandemic stimulus packages and updated climate pledges.

But hang on, pandemic-aside haven’t the positives this year been about Net Zero, about China’s promises to abate carbon, and about positive news in the US regarding Biden’s plan to re-enter global climate pledges?

Amidst all this noise, why are the truths getting worse, not better on carbon and buildings?

Seeking truth amid opacity on real world emissions

The report finds that while global building energy consumption remained steady year-on-year, energy-related CO₂ emissions increased to 9.95 Gt in 2019. How?

The increase was due to a shift away from the direct use of coal, oil and traditional biomass towards electricity, involving higher activity levels in regions of the world where electricity remains carbon-intensive – with a higher carbon content due to the high proportion of fossil fuels used in its generation.

And yet more intriguingly, GlobalABC’s Building Climate Tracker index finds that annual decarbonisation progress is slowing down and has, in fact, almost halved from 2016 to 2019. While the number of building sector CO₂ emissions reduction actions are growing, the rate of annual improvement is decreasing.

Puzzled by all this? Well – progress in efficiency efforts or the share of renewables used, along with other decarbonisation in buildings hasn’t kept up with the overall increase in sectoral growth. Still confused…

Speed of sustainable change lags behind overall building construction investment

Here’s the rub; investment in energy efficiency lags behind investment in the sector as a whole and therefore more effort is needed to decarbonise buildings. In the buildings sector, for every $1 spent on energy efficiency, $37 is spent on conventional construction approaches. There’s the disconnect.

Add in the fact buildings are burning the wrong fossil fuels to generate their electrical juice, and you’ve spotted the problem.

As mentioned, to achieve Net Zero carbon building stock by 2050, the IEA estimates direct building CO₂ emissions would need to decrease by 50% and indirect building sector emissions decline through a reduction of 60% in power generation emissions by 2030.

In real world terms, to ease your understanding, these efforts would need to see building sector emissions fall by around 6% per year from 2020 to 2030. For comparison, global energy sector CO₂ emissions decreased by 7% during the pandemic. These are vast changes to achieve.

Can Net Zero buildings be done?

This report illustrates the huge complexity of sustainability, and how every element within a mammoth creature like a modern building has to be joined up if it’s to truly impact in the most benign, or ideally environmentally positive way.

The paper argues that Governments, along with public and private organisations must undertake evaluations of their contributions to carbon emissions and develop detailed strategies from which to support the transition to a sustainable, Net Zero carbon global building stock.

And similarly, COVID-19 recovery packages to rebuild our economies must provide a unique opportunity to include deep building renovation and performance standards for newly constructed buildings.

Yet the disconnects remain. Spending for energy efficient buildings, says the report, has shown an increase in 2019 for the first time in the past three years, with investment in building energy efficiency across global markets increasing to USD $152 billion in 2019, an increase of 3% from 2018.

However, this remains a small proportion of the USD $5.8 trillion spent in the building and construction sector. By our estimation, a shockingly small proportion at that.

Closing, the report notes that green buildings represent one of the biggest global investment opportunities of the next decade, estimated by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to be $24.7 trillion by 2030.

But does anyone really, truly care? On the evidence of this report, all the will in the world may not yet be changing things nearly fast enough.


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