Rapid urbanization worldwide means every five days, the world adds buildings equivalent to the size of Paris. Every five days. Many companies know cutting emissions can provide significant benefits to business and the environment, but that is often easier said than done. Now, the United Nations is providing a blueprint, of sorts, for the construction industry to cut emissions.
The built environment is already responsible for 37% of global emissions. A report published by the UNEP (UN Environment Programme) and the Yale CEA (Center for Ecosystems + Architecture), under the GlobalABC (Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction), offers a plan for how to decarbonize the buildings and construction sector.
The report, Building materials and the climate: Constructing a new future, offers policy makers, manufacturers, architects, developers, engineers, builders, and recyclers a three-pronged solution to reduce “embodied carbon” emissions and the negative impacts on natural ecosystems from the production and deployment of building materials. Let’s take a closer look at each of these three prongs.
First, the report calls to avoid waste. This can be done through a circular approach, which is something I have spoken about in-depth in my book Sustainable in a Circular World. Circular thinking, along with the idea that a business can be environmentally responsible and competitive, plus the fact that sustainable goals are driving business innovation are all adding up and contributing to a bigger-picture movement.
For the built environment, the report suggests repurposing existing buildings is one of the most valuable options, generating somewhere between 50-75% fewer emissions than in new construction. Here workers should promote construction with less materials and with materials that have a lower carbon footprint. Companies can also look for more opportunities to reuse and recycle.
Second, the report calls to shift to ethically and sustainably sourced renewable bio-based building materials. This can include timber, bamboo, and biomass. As one example, mass timber can significantly reduce the “embodied carbon” in buildings, which is something we have written about on this blog in the past. Opportunities abound here.
The report suggests the shift toward properly managed bio-based materials could lead to compounded emissions savings in many regions of up to 40% in the sector by 2050. Of course, there are challenges. More policy and financial support are needed to ensure the widespread adoption of such renewable bio-based building materials.
Finally, the report calls to improve decarbonization of conventional materials that cannot be replaced. This is an interesting take. If we can’t avoid or shift away from it, then we must improve what we already have. Think things like concrete, steel, and aluminum, which are the three sectors responsible for 23% of overall global emissions today. Glass and bricks also come into play here as well.
Looking to the future, the report suggests priorities should be placed on electrifying production with renewable energy sources, increasing the use of reused and recycled materials, and scaling innovative technologies. At the end of the day, the transformation of regional markets and building cultures will be key through building codes, certifications, labeling, and the education of workers on circular practices.
The report digs in much deeper to these topics, offering case studies from Canada, Finland, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, and Senegal, which show how decarbonization takes place using this three-pronged approach. At the end of the day, developed economies can devote resources to renovating existing aging buildings, while emerging ones can leapfrog carbon-intensive building methods to alternative low-carbon building materials. We have an opportunity to build a more sustainable world, if only we have the right blueprint to help guide us there.
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