The building sector represents the biggest challenge and clearest opportunity for reducing GHG emissions at scale.  Globally, buildings accounts for nearly 40% of total GHG emissions.1 In cities this contribution is often much higher, with buildings typically representing the majority of total emissions.  Without affecting buildings, cities will make little progress to achieve their carbon reduction goals.

Building sector decarbonization is well understood and effective.

Strategies for reducing energy use and carbon emissions in buildings are well understood and are proven to be cost-effectiveAlready, regions of the U.S. and countries throughout the EU have made significant strides in adopting these strategies into high performance design standards, with numerous efforts underway to adopt nearly zero or net zero code standards by 2030. If adopted broadly, these standards could reduce global carbon emissions more effectively than any other technological interventions available today.

The problem lies in how quickly these building decarbonization solutions are being deployed.  Even with significant growth in cities, new construction contributes only a small portion of highly efficient buildings to the overall building stock per year.  Similarly, building renovations currently affect only 0.5-1% of the building stock annually, signaling a slow pace of change for the building sector.  Here lies the key opportunity for disruption: rapidly accelerate building upgrades and directly impact the largest source of urban emissions.

Buildings can support cross-sector decarbonization.

The energy sector has already begun a significant decarbonization efforts through the transition of aging coal power plants to natural gas and the rapid growth of new renewable energy capacity.  Modest annual increases in electricity use from buildings and industry have permitted a transition to cleaner grids, though the current rate of conversion is not sufficient to meet 2050 targets.

The transportation sector is also entering a period of transition. Expanding cities and rising incomes worldwide has led to a rise in vehicle ownership rates, particularly in developing countries.2 In the last five years the electric vehicle (EV) market has also begun to gain momentum.  It is projected that by 2030, the stock of electric vehicles will increase by 28 times compared to the 2 million electric vehicles on the road today.3 This trend signals a disruptive shift towards broad electrification in the transportation sector that could mitigate the current uptick in global petroleum consumption. However, this transition may also add significant new demands on existing electricity infrastructure — potentially at a pace that could undermine efforts to phase out grid-based fossil fuel based energy.

The building sector plays a critical role in solving this conundrum through an integrated approach: buildings must reduce energy demands to permit a full transition to clean electricity grids, thereby facilitating the decarbonization of the energy and transportation sectors. Additionally, building upgrades for energy provide a key opportunity to reinvent the connectivity between these sectors; where buildings replace service stations as the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Achieving Zero focuses on the building sector because it is where the majority of GHG emissions can be directly impacted, as well as create leverage to reduce emissions in other sectors. Its framework proposes new intervention points to accelerate carbon-focused building upgrades and catalyze new markets to support the decarbonization of the energy and transportation sectors.

Sub-national governments must act now to put programs and policies into place that will accelerate a transformation in the building sector.  Achieving Zero outlines a framework to guide this work.

[1] WorldGBC, 2017. From Thousands to Billions.
[2] UN Habitat, 2013. Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility.
[3] IEA, 2017. Energy Technology Perspectives 2017.

Building industry leaders have committed to carbon neutral design.

In 2017 the World Green Building Council, which convenes an international group of leading green building organizations, stated that in order to meet the Paris goals a collective target must be adopted to transform all buildings to net zero carbon by 2050.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and 54% of all U.S. architecture firms pledged to meet the 2030 Challenge, which calls for reducing fossil fuel based energy consumption of new construction and major renovations by 70 percent today and meeting incremental targets to carbon neutral design by 2030.

In 2014, the International Union of Architects (UIA), which represents over 1.3 million architects in 124 countries, unanimously adopted a declaration to eliminate CO2 emissions in the built environment by 2050.

Since 2015, 59 leading Chinese and international architecture, design and planning firms adopted a pledge to develop cities, towns, developments, and buildings in China to low carbon/carbon neutral standards.