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Buildings sector net-zero hopes rest on fivefold decarbonization ramp up: UNEP

09 January 2021 Keiron Greenhalgh

The global buildings sector needs to ramp up its decarbonization efforts by a factor of five to come close to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), after emissions from the operations of buildings reached an all-time high in 2019.

The goal is an even taller order than it appears on the surface because over the last couple of years the sector's decarbonization progress began heading in the wrong direction, according to the calculations of a UNEP-sponsored initiative. The Global Alliance for Building and Construction's Buildings Climate Tracker (GlobalABC) - which considers measures such as incremental energy efficiency investment in buildings and the share of renewable energy in global buildings - found that the sector's rate of annual improvement was decreasing, halving between 2016 and 2019.

The tracker - which UNEP calls the first global tracking index developed for buildings and construction - was launched 16 December 2020. A set of indicators is used to identify trends in decarbonization action and impact. The method is based on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development approach for composite indicators and applied to data from the existing GlobalABC Global Status Reports and other sources, it said.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said the buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of global energy use and 39% of carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, including the manufacturing of materials.

Emissions from the operation of buildings reached their highest-ever level in 2019 at 9.95 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the GlobalABC's The 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, also unveiled 16 December.

The sector's emissions increased year on year as a result of "a shift away from the direct use of coal, oil and traditional biomass towards electricity, which had a higher carbon content due to the high proportion of fossil fuels used in generation," according to UNEP, and shifted the sector further from meeting "its huge potential" to help slow climate change.

While construction activity dropped 20% to 30% in 2020 compared with 2019 as a result of the pandemic and around 10% of overall jobs were lost or are at risk across the building construction sector, stimulus programs for the building and construction sector can create jobs, boost economic activity, and activate local value chains, according to UNEP. "Pandemic recovery packages provide an opportunity to promote building renovation and performance standards for newly constructed buildings, and rapidly cut emissions," it said.

Under its Sustainable Recovery Plan, the IEA estimates that up to 30 jobs in manufacturing and construction would be created for every million dollars invested in retrofits or efficiency measures in new builds.

The updating of climate pledges under the Paris Climate Agreement - known as nationally determined contributions - also offer a chance to hone existing measures and include new commitments for the sector, it added.

A separate UNEP study, the Emissions Gap Report 2020, argued that a green pandemic recovery could cut up to 25% off predicted 2030 greenhouse gas emissions and bring the world closer to meeting the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Climate Agreement.

"Rising emissions in the buildings and construction sector emphasize the urgent need for a triple strategy to aggressively reduce energy demand in the built environment, decarbonize the power sector and implement materials strategies that reduce lifecycle carbon emissions," Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, said in a statement following the launch of the tracker and report.

"Green recovery packages can provide the spark that will get us moving rapidly in the right direction," she added. "Moving the buildings and construction sector onto a low-carbon pathway will slow climate change and deliver strong economic recovery benefits, so it should be a clear priority for all governments."

Governments can help achieve these gains by systematically including building decarbonization measures into recovery packages - increasing renovation rates, channeling investment into low-carbon buildings, providing jobs, and increasing real estate value, the UNEP said.

In 2019, global spending on energy-efficient buildings increased for the first time in three years, with building energy efficiency increasing to $152 billion in 2019, 3% more than the previous year. However, this is only a minimal share of the $5.8 trillion spent in the building and construction sector, according to UNEP.

Urban areas will add 2.5 billion residents globally by 2050, which means 13,000 homes/day will need to be built to house these people, Cedric de Meeus, Co-Chair EU Working Group, International Emissions Trading Association and an executive at cement maker LafargeHolcim, said during a briefing launching the tracker.

To get on track to net-zero carbon building stock by 2050, the IEA estimates that direct building CO2 emissions need, by 2030, to fall by 50% and indirect building sector emissions by 60%. This equates to building sector emissions falling by around 6% per year until 2030, close to the 7% in 2020 global energy sector CO2 emissions due to the pandemic.

The 16 December report has a list of recommendations for businesses and governments to support improving the sustainability of the construction sector, including:

  • Conduct material flow analysis for construction materials at different scales (building, city, region, country, global)
  • Level the playing field between primary and secondary materials resources by including environmental and social aspects as well as economic and technical considerations in resource classification
  • Develop standards for modular structures that are assembled on-site from components manufactured off-site to support safe and rapid deconstruction and material reuse
  • Use local alternatives to carbon-intensive cement and steel
  • Consider trade-offs in material substitutions, e.g., impacts on forest stocks
  • Develop systems to enable cycling of timber at higher value before energy recovery
  • Develop platforms for selling and buying already used building materials and components
  • Implement policies to minimize complete deconstruction and preserve existing building materials.

Posted 09 January 2021 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Editor, Energy and Natural Resources Group, IHS Markit

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