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News & opinion

28 AUG 2018

Cut it out

The built environment is critical to reducing emissions. We'll do it faster with collective action.

Why hasn’t there been more action in the building sector to save money, reduce energy use and contribute to mitigating climate change? Why don’t more countries recognise and take advantage of the property and construction sector to achieve greater energy efficiency, carbon reductions and, significantly, cost savings? The benefits seem obvious and are wide ranging, but realising them often requires navigating a set of ever-present obstacles.

Buildings account for 60% of global electricity use and produce more than one-third of all greenhouse emissions. And everyone who works to promote energy efficiency in buildings, through global networks or projects, or through research, can identify the common barriers that inhibit or limit actions. It seems that an awful lot is lacking: political will, knowledge and awareness, data, finance or coordination and, as is often overlooked, urgency. 

Buildings account for 60% of global electricity use and produce more than one-third of all greenhouse emissions.

Such barriers, individually and collectively, limit not only the pace and scale of actions, but may lead many to decide that the building sector is too complex, fragmented and difficult to incorporate in policies and strategies. Yes, some countries and local authorities are reaping the many benefits that can be realised through the building sector. But these represent a small fraction of what really needs to be done. There is too little urgency to act now.

Building without consideration of resilience and risk reduction makes little sense for any country seeking to foster growth, manage its resources, meet basic housing demands, and deliver against its climate commitments if the use of energy-inefficent buildings is locked in for decades. Missed opportunities are unlikely to return soon. They have long-term consequences that increase risks in the context of climate change and energy security, and are wasteful and expensive.

Carbon dioxide emissions infographic
Global carbon emissions 1811-2011

One thing that is not lacking is the wealth of expertise ready to assist countries and the industry to take a different course of action, and develop building policies and practices. We are also not short of proven solutions, so the barriers are not permanent, and the future should bring more ambition in building and energy policies, and energy performance. Importantly, actions can be taken now, the results of which would translate into the performance and value of buildings, returns on investments, the sustainability of communities, and assist in meeting the challenges of climate change.

At the 21st Conference of Parties, held in December 2015 in Paris, many countries and organisations came together to focus on the building sector. At the event’s inaugural Buildings Day, these stakeholders – including RICS, the UN Environment Programme, the World Green Building Council and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the French government – focused on solutions, collaboration and the need to scale up actions to make buildings more energy efficient, and realise the sector’s full climate-change mitigation potential.

We should aspire to a future where all buildings are not just structurally sound and safe, but energy efficient and resilient as well. It may be difficult at first, but the long-term benefits are compelling.

  • Curt Garrigan, coordinator, Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative, United Nations Environment Programme