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News & opinion

9 NOV 2021

COP26: A roadmap to decarbonisation in Europe

This article is written by Senior Vice-President Tina Paillet, who is also the co-founder of Circotr@de

Earlier this year in Rotterdam, the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) moved offices. During the pandemic, many organisations have been consolidating their office footprints and considering how to maximise the value of their assets – but the GCA’s move is a little more remarkable.

The GCA now occupies the world’s largest floating office, anchored in the historic port of Rijnhaven. This is not just a building: it’s a statement of what is possible in terms of sustainable design and construction. It couldn’t have opened at a more critical time, with COP26 underway and the world’s attention once again turning to climate change. Built with circular principles embedded at each stage, it is primarily constructed from FSC certified wood, which can be repurposed in the future. It is completely self-sufficient, using solar panels for energy and the water it floats on for cooling.

There’s just one problem: buildings like this are still exceptional. If the built environment is to contribute to 2050 net zero targets, they need to become mainstream. This year’s World Built Environment Forum Annual Sustainability Report highlights there is much room for improvement in the construction sector. Although almost two-thirds of respondents to their survey named minimising waste as a priority concern for the industry, only half suggested there had been any increase in demand for recycled and re-used materials.

Globally, over 70% of construction sector respondents said they are currently making no measurement of operational carbon emissions across the life cycle of their projects. More than half report taking no measurement of embodied carbon emissions – and there is little evidence that the measurements we have are meaningfully impacting material choices. Encouragingly, Europe is leading the way in this area with the highest proportion of respondents saying they do measure embodied carbon and this data influences their material choices.

In the decades ahead, we will need a clear plan to achieve a decarbonised built environment by 2050. The World Green Building Council’s #BuildingLife Project recently consulted on an EU Policy Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, which sets out the steps required across four key areas.

Building Regulations

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive remains a vital policy instrument in Europe, but long-term renovation strategies have underperformed. Average energy performance improvement rates in renovation programs are currently just 9% for residential and 16% for commercial. In the future, there will need to be a staged approach for mandatory minimum energy performance standards and a timetable to reach specific levels. Long term renovation strategies will need to be more ambitious and aim for net zero emissions over the whole lifecycle of a building, as well as promoting the circular use of materials. Data will be key to monitoring progress and ensuring that the industry is on track to meet regulatory targets.

Waste and Circularity

With a waste footprint that accounts for a third of Europe’s total, EU policy must also go further to tackle this aspect of the building sector’s environmental impact. Central to this will be developing policies that enable and catalyse a major increase in the reuse and recycling of building materials, with the end goal of designing waste out of the construction value chain and ending the sector’s damaging reliance on the consumption of finite materials. Circularity is also major tool for decarbonisation of the entire lifecycle through increased resource efficiency, of which waste prevention and the use of secondary resources is a major part.

Procurement

Procurement allows the public sector to model best practice, acting as first adopters to new initiatives, innovative tools and methods that will be crucial in decarbonizing the built environment. Public procurement criteria in the future can be used to incentivise the use of whole life carbon assessments, pre-demolition resource audits and the use of circular materials By 2050, public procurement should be a mechanism for supporting functioning re-use and circular markets whilst public buildings should be exemplars of what can be achieved in net zero whole life carbon buildings through circularity, innovation and adaptive re-use.

Sustainable Finance

The recently launched EU Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance represents an important first step towards incentivising investment in sustainable activities by classifying economic activities and sectors that make a substantial contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as circular economy, biodiversity, water and pollution all contributing to the EU’s environmental goals. The taxonomy can also be used by companies who fall within scope of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive to outline to investors how their activities are advancing environmental goals. It aims to become a mechanism to incentivise investment in sustainable buildings, whilst disincentivising investment in buildings which are not net zero in operation.

The World Green Building Council’s #BuildingLife Roadmap represents an important next step on the path to net zero whole life carbon for the built environment. Whilst COP26 is paramount for setting the stage and the targets needed to move forwards, we should not forget that it is the progress we make in the months and years afterwards which will be critical to ensuring that our planet is preserved for generations to come.