Chatham House Associate Fellow and chartered member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Karim Elgendy explores the role of buildings in the race to net zero cities.
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The building blocks of the zero-carbon economy
Cement, steel and glass are the key inputs of the built environment. The manufacture of these materials is slowly but surely being decarbonized. Construction companies are harnessing this innovation to help decarbonized new builds and put us on a trajectory for net-zero carbon buildings by 2050 at the latest.
Cement sector gets ambitious
The cement sector is responsible for 8% of global emissions. Leading cement companies are setting ambitious targets and actively cutting emissions from their industrial processes. Some of the largest cement companies in the world are taking bold action, including HeidelbergCement, UltraTech and LafargeHolcim who all now have approved science-based targets (SBTs). 16 cement companies have now committed to set an SBT to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
New statement proving industry commitment
40 of the world’s leading cement and concrete companies have unveiled a joint industry ‘2050 Climate Ambition’. The ambition statement, launched by the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) demonstrates the industry commitment to drive down the CO2 footprint of the world’s most used man-made product by 2050 and represents a critical milestone for the industry.
Steel sector steps up
Steel companies around the world are investing in cutting-edge technology to lower the carbon footprint of their end products, including increasing their scrap recycling and changing their electrification processes. India’s Mahindra Sanyo Special Steel became the first steel company to have an approved science-based target in 2018.
Thyssenkrupp, ArcelorMittal and Companhia Brasileira de Aluminio
German steelmaker Thyssenkrupp, which already has an approved science-based target, plans to phase out CO2 intensive coke-based steel production and replace it with a hydrogen-based process by 2050. Steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal has pledged carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050. Brazil’s largest aluminium producer Companhia Brasileira de Aluminio (CBA) has committed to setting a science-based target (SBT) aligned with the Business Ambition for 1.5ºC campaign.
Glass companies demonstrate vision
A substantial amount of glass is used in construction and leading glass companies are embracing the challenge of decarbonizing the industry. Three of the world’s ten largest glass manufacturers – Saint-Gobain, Owens Corning and Nippon Sheet Glass, with a joint 2019 revenue of $66.5bn, have all set science-based targets (SBTs) with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
Rising demand for low-carbon construction
Why are these industries changing? Partly in the face of increasing demand from businesses, cities, states and regions – which are regulating and requiring zero-carbon new builds to deliver on ever-more aggressive targets.
+80 construction and real estate companies
Over 80 construction and real estate companies have set ambitious science-based targets to reduce their emissions, including the fifth largest construction company in the world, Skansa and Japan’s biggest home construction company, Daiwa House.
LandSec makes progress on its science-based target
Property development companies are also stepping up. Landsec became the first commercial real estate company in the world to have its science-based target approved by the Science Based Targets initiative. Landsec have also committed to EP100, RE100 and EV100. The company cut carbon intensity in its portfolio by 48% since 2014 and has already surpassed its 2030 target 11 years early.
Net zero carbon buildings commitment
90 energy-smart companies committed to using energy more productively with the Climate Group’s EP100, including 65+ businesses and organisations committed to Net Zero Carbon Buildings. The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is led by the World Green Building Council as part of EP100.
Majid Al Futtaim commits to net-zero buildings
Majid Al Futtaim – the leading shopping mall and leisure pioneer across the Middle East and North Africa – is committed to only owning spaces that are net-zero carbon in operation by 2030, through EP100. Majid Al Futtaim reported in 2019 to have reduced its group-wide operational carbon emissions by 2.4% and water consumption by 1.6%, despite an increase in operational floor area by 37% since 2016.
Framework towards a net-zero built environment
WBCSD together with leading companies operating in the built environment, including ArcelorMittal and Saint-Gobain, have developed a new framework for aligning all actors of the built environment around a common language for carbon emissions.
Zero-energy buildings increase
We are starting to see the impact: the share of zero-energy buildings is increasing. The Government of Canada is currently investing CAD 48.4 million to support the development and implementation of deep retrofits for existing buildings and new net-zero-energy-ready buildings. The Japanese government has decided that net-zero or less-than-average energy consumption for new houses and buildings will be required by 2030.
NDCs specify buildings
Over 130 countries specify buildings in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – and 87 of these specified technology objectives, such as equipment performance, according to a report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction and IEA.
Creating zero-carbon cities of the future
Cities, states and regions are also investing. As well as cities, who can set their own regulations for new buildings, policymakers at every level are helping to create the zero-carbon cities and towns of the future, by ensuring that today’s buildings are constructed to the highest environmental standards.
C40 Cities connects the world’s cities
At a city level, local planning and regulation can set clear zero-carbon policies that have substantial impact. C40 Cities connects 96 of the world’s biggest cities – accounting for over 700 million citizens and one quarter of the global economy and including New York and Chennai. The majors of these cities are committed to delivering on the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement at the local level.
Cities embrace renewable energy
CDP reports that cities are currently instigating renewable energy developments valued at $2.3bn. This forms part of a wider shift by cities to develop 1,000 clean infrastructure projects, such as electric transport and energy efficiency, worth over $52 billion.
States and regions commit to emissions reduction
Signatories of the Under2 Coalition, which spans 220 governments, six continents and 43 countries, have collectively committed to remove between 4.6-5.0 Gt of C02 equivalent emissions per year by 2030. More than the current annual emissions of the European Union.
NDCs specify buildings
104 NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) mention specific actions to enhance energy-efficiency in buildings, building codes and energy certifications. Over 135 countries specify buildings in their NDCs and 87 of these specified technology objectives, such as equipment performance, according to a report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction and IEA.
Remote working becomes the new normal
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies to adopt remote working for employees where possible. Virtual offices provide businesses with an opportunity to change their way of working sustainably and reap the long-term benefits, including less office space and costs, less commuting, fewer business trips, improved cohesive working and greater focus and work-life balance for employees.
Zero carbon buildings and the 3P’s
Building construction and operations have an extensive impact on the environment, society and the economy, or the 3 P’s; People, Planet and Pocketbook. Sustainable design aims to achieve a balance between the needs of the 3 P’s and is more important than ever for the wellbeing of a population.
Indoor air quality monitoring for buildings
Where workers must return to their places of work following the Covid-19 pandemic, employers face the challenge of optimising the operational performance of buildings, as a way to minimise viral transmission. New and existing buildings must consider room temperature, humidity, outdoor ventilation and lighting to reduce risk of virus transmission.
Further benefits of sustainable building
Green building benefits go beyond economics and the environment and have been shown to bring positive social and cultural impacts too. Social benefits include, minimizes strain on local infrastructure, increases morale of occupants and improves worker productivity.
Better air, better sleep, better work
Workers in green, well ventilated offices record a 100% increase in brain function according to Harvard. Employees in offices with windows slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. Research also suggests that better indoor air quality ( low concentration of CO2 and pollutants with high ventilation rates) can lead to improvements in performance of up to 8%.
Innovative technologies – zero-carbon solutions
Innovative technologies are emerging to ensure tomorrow’s buildings are constructed, powered and managed with zero-carbon solutions, opening new business opportunities.
Wood makes a comeback
Using wood in construction has made a leap back into fashion. Research from the Energy Transitions Commission suggests that the substitution of timber for cement could play a major role in emissions reductions over the long term. The world’s tallest wooden building in the world is Mjostarnet, situated north of Oslo. Standing at just over 85 metres high it proves that tall buildings can be built using local resources, local suppliers and sustainable wooden materials.
Cement that cuts carbon emissions
Solidia Technologies is using an innovative technique that injects carbon back into cement in place of water, reducing the carbon footprint of final concrete by up to 70%. Construction chemicals company Chryso have joined forces with Solidia to further improve the performance of their ultra-low CO2 concrete and scale the use of greener concrete worldwide.
Self-healing and air-purifying concrete
Improving heating and cooling
Growing demand for air conditioners is one of the critical blind spots in today’s energy debate. Improving residential cooling equipment performance would save 3.5 EJ of energy to 2025 – slightly less than total electricity use in India in 2015, according to one study.
Green bonds bring needed capital
To fund this transition and retro-fit the world’s building stock will take large amounts of capital. Green bonds that are tied to low-emission or zero-carbon buildings are expected to amount to 40% of the green bonds market, over the long-term.
ANZ Bank kick starts the process
The first green bond certified under the Low Carbon Buildings criteria was issued by the ANZ Bank in May 2015 with proceeds of A$600m allocated to green buildings, wind energy and solar energy loans in Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia.
Green building bond market grows
Over 80 Climate Certified Bonds linked to Low Carbon Buildings have been issued since, representing an estimated 25% of all the bonds so far.
Investors add pressure
And investors are applying pressure back onto the big manufacturers – European funds managing $2 trillion in assets have called on cement companies to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, warning that a failure to do so could put their business models at risk.
Challenges to overcome
Such a wholesale, and rapid transition to a net-zero carbon built environment doesn’t come without its challenges. These range from costs and technical challenges to simply a lack of data.
Retrofitting at pace
Retrofitting faces challenges in terms of scalability and costs, but there are also benefits such as resource usage. Furthermore, green buildings have been shown to save money through reduced energy and water consumption and lower long-term operations and maintenance costs, according to WGBC.
URBAN DESIGN THAT MAKES SUSTAINABLE LIVING SECOND NATURE
It’s 2050 and urban life has never been better. Despite more people living in urban areas than ever before, the world’s towns and cities are now healthy, affordable and inclusive places to live. Many of the policies and investments driving these improvements also explain the radical decarbonisation of today’s human settlements. Indeed, the design of today’s cities makes living a 1.5oC-aligned life almost second nature for residents.
Much of the heavy lifting here has been done by urban planners, architects, construction companies, property owners, utility firms and sustainable material innovators, among others, supported by bold local and national policy and investment. Their combined efforts mean that old buildings are now much more energy-efficient to run, for instance, while new buildings now create only a fraction of the carbon footprint they once had.
Urban infrastructure has undergone a similar overhaul. As well as requiring less energy to build and maintain, contemporary infrastructure actively encourages people to adopt sustainable habits, such as walking to work, shopping locally and recycling household waste. Residents are hugely animated by these changes because they can see the everyday wellbeing benefits they bring.
Visionary public policies, coupled with cutting-edge innovations by business, have certainly played an essential role in creating the net zero human settlements of today. No less critical, however, has been the resolute commitment by planners to include citizens at every step of the way. As a result, the needs of all segments of society are now given their proper weight. Furthermore, residents feel an enormous pride for the sustainable settlements they have helped co-create.
- By 2025, all countries include specific measures in NDCs and have roadmaps for decarbonising and ensuring resilience in the built environment, including plans to make all buildings net zero by 2050.
- Implement policies that promote the responsible production and consumption of low carbon products but prioritise reuse and recovery, making cities ‘zero waste’ by 2050.
- By 2025, implement planning policy that favours reuse, retrofit and green infrastructure, and requires emissions minimisation and resilience in built environment projects.
- By 2021, companies across the built environment value chain commit to becoming net zero and collaborating across the system to achieve a net zero built environment by 2050.
- Ensure emissions reduction, circular design and built-in resilience are prioritised in all financial and procurement decisions by 2025.
- Support efforts to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in buildings as part of the overall goal of making human settlements net zero by 2050.
- Drive the shift to a net zero built environment by stimulating investment in sustainable construction and retrofitting, starting with a capital expenditure target of US$270 billion per year by 2030.
- Request companies in the built environment sector to assess and disclose their climate-related risks and opportunities, and regularly report their progress towards net zero.
- Advocate for government policy and regulation that makes the transition to net zero in human settlements investible.
- Develop scalable technologies, designs, processes and business models that enable the integration of circular approaches (reuse and recycling) in all aspects of human settlements, including construction and retrofitting projects.
- Develop and demonstrate zero carbon heating and cooling solutions for buildings and low carbon construction materials technologies that are scalable.
- Provide digital solutions that enable the reporting of as-built embodied carbon from construction projects and real-time tracking and automated optimisation of operational buildings performance in human settlements.
- Make efforts to change behaviours in line with a 1.5⁰C lifestyle, lowering the average citizen annual carbon footprint to 2.5tCO2e by 2030.
- Actively demand low carbon, equitable and circular products and services within human settlements, including zero carbon buildings and recycling and reuse facilities, to enable the transition to a zero-waste society.
- Take steps to significantly reduce household energy and water consumption and, where possible, carry out retrofits to deliver zero carbon, energy efficient homes.