Built environment has work cut out to meet 2030 goals

Without consistent measurement, the built environment will fall behind in the race to net zero, says Nigel Tonks, Director, WLC Transformation Lead, Arup UKIMEA.

The need for all sectors to lower their emissions has never been clearer, with 2023 marking the hottest year on record. But it is the built environment that must lead the way in the race to net zero, accounting for a staggering 37% of all global energy-related emissions. Sadly, this is far from the reality the sector is facing, with recent findings from the 2023 Global Status Report for Buildings showing we are falling short of our UN 2030 targets. The Report reveals that building emissions today are already trailing targets by 15%.

But rather than be deterred by the challenge we face, we must seize this opportunity to pioneer solutions.

We can take hope from the fact that much of the technology and practices required already exist. Insulating buildings, improving building performance, reducing embodied carbon, transitioning away from fossil-fuelled heating systems and decarbonising the grid are all tried and tested methods to reduce the sector’s emissions. The International Energy Agency’s report last year found that buildings offer 40% of the required solutions to double energy intensity improvement by 2030.

The industry now needs every encouragement to expand and implement these solutions on a large scale, and with urgency. The first step is to prioritise effective and standardised measurement of the carbon footprint of buildings.

Out with ambiguity

Only by consistent measurement across the built environment, can we collect sufficient meaningful data to determine what realistic industry targets to set, determine which measures to prioritise, and give ourselves real data to track and report our progress.

A recent paper by WBCSD on Net Zero Operational Buildings has revealed that, as it stands, there is no globally consistent and robust definition of a net zero building within the property sector, despite the rise in corporate net zero commitments.

At its simplest, a net zero building can be defined as one which is highly energy efficient, with low upfront and lifecycle embodied carbon, not connected to fossil fuel energy sources, supported by 100% on-site or additional off-site clean energy, and where unavoidable residual emissions are offset by long term carbon removal.

Each of these parameters is readily quantifiable despite the many complexities. However, the estimated proportion of new construction that is currently accounted for in this way is less than 1%. It is also estimated that each week, humanity adds to the built environment an area equivalent to a city the size of Paris.

An internationally agreed definition for net zero buildings is crucial for robust national and local government policies, underpinning measurement, and transparent reporting, and providing clarity to the market that will generate real value from climate-adapted assets.

The Declaration of Chaillot, signed by the 72 countries, aims to achieve just this. The Declaration is a commitment to implementing roadmaps, regulatory frameworks, and mandatory building and energy codes. As it stands, over 100 countries have no building energy regulations whatsoever. This agreement aims to close this gap by promoting ambitious policies, unlocking finance, and supporting research and development – a crucial foundation for the transformative change required for the industry.

Working towards a shared goal

The sector must implement these net-zero solutions while accounting for the other impacts of climate change globally. The built environment must be resilient to floods, rainfall and extreme temperatures.

In this work, we must account for every member of society, ensuring that policies and actions do not leave behind poorer communities, or the one in eight people living in informal settlements worldwide, who are often the most vulnerable to impacts of climate change.

This journey requires collaboration – no one business or government can solve these issues alone. Openly sharing data and insights across our industry is essential to ensure that we can work together towards net zero goals. Arup’s dataset covering whole life carbon emissions has revealed how valuable comparable, consistent and granular data on building function, size, location, materials and systems can be in carbon reduction decision-making. To scale these efforts, we need widespread adoption of detailed whole life carbon assessments and transparent reporting.

The building sector must collaborate to support the standardised collection and sharing of carbon emissions data. With the united goal of halting climate change, businesses can develop harmonised tools and methodologies to place carbon under the same scrutiny as cost in the planning process.

Inaction will mean failure

Regulation is pivotal to the enactment of change and will be a key driver in meeting net zero goals. However, policies take time- often years – to come to fruition. Waiting for policy to lead the way is not the answer. Progress can emerge from immediate action. If we unite globally and across supply chains, scaling the solutions we currently have at our fingertips, we stand a chance of cutting emissions in half by 2030, and making meaningful action to mitigate climate change.


Previous articleTotal honesty is the way forward for brands
Next articleCreate more leaders, not victims, in climate change fight