Climate activism cannot ignore the built environment: it generates half of the emissions

With Indonesian islanders recently suing cement producers for climate damage, buildings are receiving much-needed attention for their heavy carbon footprint. The built environment generates nearly 50 percent of global annual emissions. However, buildings hardly receive climate activism commensurate with their impact, despite the concrete being the the second most consumed material after water. Legal actions help change that.

Yes, the buildings are attracting attention. The industry is busy launching tools to calculate “embedded carbon”. The proposed Inflation Reduction Act in the US Senate allocates billions of dollars to make buildings more efficient and promote low-carbon supply in buildings and construction. American and European cities are demanding resources to decarbonise buildings, as our members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance have been leading in this regard for years, and members of the European Parliament are pushing to ensure communities lead this building transition.

But the built environment is not on everyone’s mind. The public does not use “building decarbonisation” and “net zero buildings”, nor does it talk about “operational carbon” (the carbon emitted during the management of a building) and “embedded carbon” (the carbon emitted during construction of a building).

When you talk to the public about climate action, it will point to recycling, electric vehicles, solar panels, mass transit, heat pumps, and plant-based diets. This has been covered in the press, so it’s easier to reiterate it. They are less likely to indicate “the built environment”.

While they may refer to a building’s operational emissions (by turning off lights, turning down heating or cooling, or altering the weather for energy efficiency), they are less likely to think about emissions embedded in built office or home environments and those material supply chains and construction processes.

How often do people talk about reducing the life cycle carbon footprint of drywall and insulation, or the footprint of steel, concrete or carpet? It’s not on the tip of the audience’s tongue.

We need to broaden the perspective of the public and policymakers to be part of daily climate action conversations. So when we talk about electric vehicles, solar shingles or fair and organic trade fads, we can add the buildings where we spend a lot of time working, sleeping and eating.

And not just for environmental reasons. There are a number of exciting health, energy and workforce benefits when decarbonising buildings and greening building supply chains.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted potential savings in its 2022 report on the decarbonisation of buildings in cities and regions. They are significant. Nearly $ 200 billion is available in reduced healthcare spending, and with every $ 1 million invested in decarbonising buildings, up to 30 jobs are created. Additionally, with low-income families facing energy poverty, building decarbonisation is a fair and equitable investment, especially when community driven.

These benefits also extend to more sustainable building supply chains, which aren’t just about good green jobs and healthier environments for people and the planet. It is about building resilience to withstand future shocks, something the EU has pledged to pursue after the pandemic. All these victories the public can understand.

However, the cities, which are closest to the public, are familiar with the local building stock and are responsible for building and zoning regulations, need help to support the cause. When the OECD asked what cities needed from national governments, while 95% of cities said financial support to advance pilot projects was top priority, 74% of cities asked for help to raise awareness. public. These two needs outweighed the other demands. The third request, at 58 percent, was for the removal of barriers in national regulation that inhibit local action.

The first and third points above, on financial and regulatory support respectively, will receive a boost in the US with the Inflation Reduction Act and in the EU by the recently agreed Green New Deal, Energy Efficiency and Energy Performance Directives. , as well as efforts to strengthen them in order to decarbonise all EU buildings.

It is that second priority, as far as raising public awareness, which may be ignored by governments who do not understand the need.

Buildings could easily be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. How buildings and their materials are purchased, constructed, managed, refurbished and recycled could be as much a priority as single-use plastics.

But the public has to see it. The good and the bad entering a building. Imagine “Story of Stuff” by environmental activist Annie Leonard, but for the history of the buildings. Imagine the carbon labeling of fashion but for the built environment.

Buildings need countryside. With stories illustrating how life is better in a decarbonised building, from its inception and construction, to its operation.

Stories that highlight the health benefits, cost-saving benefits, and workforce benefits – all things, all along the supply chain – for everyone and everything involved. From miner to producer, from cement to worktop, from resources to reuse, from assembly to disassembly. The simpler it is and the sooner, the better.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Engagement for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

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