Buildings represent almost 40% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and if you add in other activities that can be associated with buildings, such as transportation, that number rises even further. This is bad news for the climate.
Digging in a bit deeper, the Global Alliance of Buildings and Construction released the 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction near the end of last year and found that while emissions from building operations fell in 2020, due primarily due the COVID-19 shutdowns, if we want to achieve the Paris Agreement, the global buildings and construction sector must almost completely decarbonize by 2050.
McKinsey estimates roughly $9.2 trillion in annual investment will be needed across the globe to support the net-zero transition. If we don’t successfully decarbonize, McKinsey suggests the world will experience mounting physical risks that will strain the foundations of the global economy and society. Still, if we can figure this all out and decarbonize, the 2050 economy will look fundamentally different from the current economy.
As with everything, there is some good news—and opportunity in all of this—if you choose to look for it.
As Katie McGinty, vice president and chief sustainability and external relations officer, Johnson Controls, recently told me on an episode of The Peggy Smedley Show, “If you are gobbling that much energy, you are for sure being inefficient.” And if you are being inefficient, there is a big opportunity for technology to step in and solve that problem—which is exactly what is happening with buildings.
As one example, Microsoft and Johnson Controls are working together on smart campuses. Along with McGinty, Evangeline Marzec, sustainability CTO, Microsoft, joined me on The Peggy Smedley Show to discuss how the company is committed to being carbon negative by 2030.
“We are working with Johnson Controls to design embodied carbon out of our buildings, monitor and reduce our operational footprint, and get energy savings along the way,” Marzec says. “For instance, Johnson Controls helped us with our Beijing campus retrofit. We got almost 28% energy savings. The way we did it is we partnered up. Microsoft created a central, integrated, digital brain for the campus.”
What’s in It for Building Owners?
To better understand the benefits, McGinty compares building to cars. Today’s cars are a computer on wheels—and what if we could do the same thing with buildings? What if a building did know it was 70 degrees outside rather than 90 degrees outside? What if a building knew the air quality outside is terrific today?
With the digital platform, OpenBlue, supported by Microsoft’s capabilities in the cloud, a building can turn renewable energy that is built on the roof and direct it instead to that spike that is going to happen in electricity costs on the grid. This is a truly smart building that is using data and optimizing its functionality. In the end, it will make the building owners some money, as they are able to sell green electrons back to the grid.
At the center of all of this is the data. As Marzec explains, when you merge the different data sets, you start to recognize patterns that are not immediately evident. And at the end of the day, building owners can learn not just how to better manage the building—but how to better build the next one, which extends the benefits through the lifecycle of the asset. That is perhaps the biggest win for building owners today. As McKinsey suggests, decarbonizing real estate requires considering a building’s ecosystem.
This doesn’t have to be hard or complicated either. Since there is so much inefficiency, building owners can choose to do decarbonization and net zero as a service.
What Comes Next?
With the move to environmentally friendly, smart buildings needs to also come a change in mindset, according to McGinty.
“For the longest time, when you talked about the environment it was seen as a total trade off. What is good for the environment is bad for the economy. It is jobs vs. the environment. The exact opposite is true right now,” McGinty says. “We are talking about innovation that don’t just solve a carbon problem but unleash strategic opportunity and promise.”
Consider the example of hospitals. Energy is one of the biggest pain points and cost centers. Dimmable windows can talk to the sun to dramatically reduce wasted energy from unneeded lighting in the room. At the same time, it can eliminate the need for curtains, which are germ magnets. It is a win-win. And this is simply one example. We also spoke about the example of sports stadiums and buildings in general. There is opportunity for everyone.
Marzec agrees, “As we lean into a different risk mitigation, risk mindset, we find that an environmentally aware and friendly decision is often also a financially aware decision because we are designing out risks in different fashions, rather than using redundancy for it.”
At the end of the day, the big takeaway in the discussion with Marzec and McGinty was very clear, we need to shift from the mindset that sustainability is scary, hard, and expensive to sustainability is an opportunity.
“The recipe is this,” explains McGinty. “There is no decarbonizing the climate without decarbonizing buildings. To decarbonize buildings, you need to make them super-efficient, and then you electrify them, and you digitalize them.”
Perhaps this movement starts there. Once we adjust our mindset, then we can lean into data, which is the revolution that is coming to buildings and the climate.
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