Decarbonisation of built environment will require multifaceted effort

14 September 2017

The Paris Agreement laid out a key framework to bring the global economy in line with the reality in which it operates. While various efforts are ongoing to meet its key target, the built environment has received less attention than transport and energy. A new report considers current requirements and trends towards decarbonisation of the built environment, including barriers to success.

While much of the business environment appears to be focused chiefly on its profit goal irrespective of future outcomes, concern is increasingly being raised about whether the marginal benefits of increased short-term profit outweigh the longer-term benefits of shifting towards more sustainable, socially and environmentally friendly, economic models.

A new report from Ecofys, which last year joined forces with Navigant, has explored the decarbonisation process across various sectors. The 'Faster and Cleaner 2' report is drawn from the recent Climate Action Tracker decarbonisation series. The Climate Action Tracker consortium consists of Ecofys, Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute.

This particular briefing looks at three key sectors, buildings, vehicles and electricity generation. 'Faster and Cleaner 2' highlights that, while energy and transportation has seen increased focus and effort, the building sector is only in the initial phases for decarbonisation.

Built environment emissions

The built environment will need to considerably reduce its direct carbon equivalent footprint to meet the 2 C target, at between 70–80% reduction of direct emissions from the building sector by 2050, while for the 1.5 C target, a reduction of 80–90% is required. Indirect reductions too will be required, although they fall under power sector for the purposes of the report.

The report notes that, given the late start, considerable effort will be required to decarbonise the built environment. To meet the 1.5 C target, all new buildings would need to be zero-energy by 2020 in OECD countries and by 2025 in non-OECD countries, while refurbishment rates would need to increase significantly, at 5% of floor space renovated per year in OECD regions and 3% per year in non-OECD regions.

The research points to a relatively complex picture, with long-term decarbonisation meeting difficulties on various fronts. For the US and the EU, relatively higher direct and indirect emissions density per area are offset by relatively lower total floor area. For China however, the relative boom in total floor area means that its relatively lower energy density will be offset by total growth.

Building sector emission per capital and total

As a result, the US and China will vie for the highest total emissions from the building sector between now and 2030. Current trends in the US market will see its emissions profile improve slightly, while the Chinese profile will plateau from around 2020. The EU is projected to see slight decreases, while India will continue to rise. Mexico, meanwhile, is relatively stagnant. In terms of emission density per capita, however, the US remains dominant, followed distantly by the EU and China.

Zero emissions

The report notes that “we have known how to build zero emission buildings for several decades.” The technology and skills are, therefore, already present to build zero-emission buildings. To achieve implementation however, the firm notes that a concerted effort will be required, including a set of “ambitious policies and best practices in policy”, which will need global replication in line with local circumstances.

A set of interdependent and mutually amplifying initiatives are also recommended in the report, including “regulatory measures, such as building codes and standards; informational instruments, such as energy labels and mandatory energy audits; direct market intervention instruments, including public procurement; economic instruments, such as tradable permits, taxes, and financial incentives; and voluntary agreements, such as industry related agreements.”

Adoption of residential IECC

Current efforts vary considerably between regions. Many EU countries, for instance, fall under a new EU Directive that requires all new buildings in 2020 to be nearly zero-energy buildings (nZEB), as well as increased improvement to renovation – although the report notes that this does not go far enough yet. The US also has various, often state-mandated efforts. However, the current political environment in the US remains out of touch with reality, which means implementation is likely to be delayed.

The report notes however that, in terms of cost, most nZEB and ZEB buildings pay for themselves over their respective lifetime – various structures can be implemented, which means that deep refurbishment of current stock towards ZEB can pay for itself too.

The major barriers to change remain complex, highlighting structural issues within current economic models and alignment to long-term sustainable growth. Aside from initial capital costs, the principal-agent problem, creates barriers, as does the length of occupancy relative to building lifecycles. Further issues pertain to a lack of awareness about longer-term benefits of ZEB buildings, and a lack of skills to design and build ZEB buildings, particularly in developing economies.


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