It is almost impossible to understate the sheer scale of the global challenge that lies ahead to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, according to the keynote speaker at a COP Presidency event during the recent COP 26 climate summit.
One-fifth of total emissions come from buildings, meaning that the fight against climate change must begin at home, explained Eddie Hughes, UK minister for rough sleeping and housing, during a session on climate action in the built environment. In Britain, he added, one in five houses are more than a century old, and are more suited for the industrial revolution than for the green revolution.
Hughes’ recent “fabric first” heat and building strategy aims to decarbonize 13 million of the 29 million homes in Britain by 2035, largely by reducing demand through energy efficiency and fabric improvements, as well as supporting low-carbon energy supply from heat pumps and other renewable energy options.
With this scaling up of the market, he predicted that energy costs could drop 25 to 50% by 2025, creating 175,000 green jobs and injecting £6 billion into the national economy by the end of this decade.
“The status quo offers no safety to any of us,” Hughes said, adding that strong collaboration is needed at all levels of government and private industry—a call that was echoed by other panelists during the session.
“In this race to net-zero, we are attempting the biggest social and economic shift ever undertaken,” he said. “But we don’t have a choice,” and “pious pledges are not enough to avoid climate catastrophe.”
There are many different types of buildings which collectively are responsible for 40% of global emissions, explained moderator Dame Jo da Silva of sustainable development consultancy ARUP. The goal of the United Nations is to halve these emissions by 2030, in order to be on the trajectory to reach net-zero by 2050.
More than half of the buildings around the world that will exist in 2050 are yet to be built. That statistic presents a golden opportunity, but “we will not get there one building at a time,” she warned. “We have a critical but narrow window for sector transformation that results in a sustainable and resilient built environment, and contributes to a just transition.”
More than 722 million people live in the 1,049 cities that have joined the UN Race to Zero, and session speakers from Tunisia, India, South Africa, and the United States noted optimistically that emissions from buildings are now counted in many of the National Determined Contributions the countries had filed with the UN climate secretariat. They cited examples of progress in their own countries, while calling for more innovation and greater collaboration on deep energy retrofits.
Most future buildings will be constructed in countries that do not have building codes, added UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Anderson, which means the real work in this sector is yet to come.