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COP24: Time to address the building and construction sector’s total emissions impact

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The recent IPCC report removes all doubt: the building and construction sector must decarbonise by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. As nations all over the globe tackle operational emissions from buildings, we must challenge ourselves to address our sector’s total emissions impact if we are to deliver a truly net zero carbon building stock. COP24 must mark the beginning of a major global campaign to take on this challenge - one on which Europe must lead the world.


New global research supported by the Finnish government and WorldGBC’s partners Saint-Gobain and Stora Enso reports that there are now over 100 standards worldwide that address ‘embodied carbon’ in buildings and construction. The research defines embodied carbon as ‘the total impact of all the greenhouse gases emitted by the construction and materials of our built environment’ (noting that at present there is no globally accepted formal definition).


Indeed this topic is not new to the buildings and climate debate. The German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) has included a full life cycle assessment of emissions in its building certification scheme for well over a decade. A 2050 roadmap for the property sector set out by the Norwegian Green Building Council has seen many of Norway’s biggest real estate owners commit to taking action on embodied emissions. Indeed, Norway’s finance sector is currently exploring including embodied emissions in green loans to the property sector to ensure their investments are ‘Paris proof’.


However, while the issue is not new, action on embodied carbon barely gets a mention in the mainstream climate and buildings debate. While operational emissions are targeted by an increasing range of policies, embodied emissions are on the rise. The Finnish research notes that global embodied carbon emissions from new buildings alone will exceed 100 gigatons by 2060 if unchecked, rising to over 230 gigatons if all renovation activity and infrastructure construction are included.


This is one reason why Finland’s government is currently consulting on planned regulations to implement life cycle CO2 threshold limits for different building types by 2025. But in many countries, ambitious policy and private sector action to drive down embodied emissions are absent - and construction material suppliers often cite a lack of demand for low carbon solutions as a barrier in their efforts to decarbonise. It’s time to tackle this with policies like Finland’s that can galvanise actors across the sector the way policies on energy efficiency have.


Given the work already underway in leading markets like Germany, Finland and Norway, the immediate challenge is not so much how to start addressing embodied carbon. Rather, it is to elevate leading work in this field to a much more visible level so it can spark and guide more mainstream debate. Leaders are already adopting whole building life cycle assessments, designing for deconstruction, and extending the use of existing buildings with top-ups. Governments, cities and actors across the construction and real estate sector now need a clear roadmap of actions they can take so we can work together to deliver a net zero carbon built environment by 2050.


The World Green Building Council’s (WorldGBC) ‘Advancing Net Zero’ project is answering this call.


Read the article on World Green Building Council website.