Eliminating carbon from the building and construction sector by mid-century will require radical transformation.
In its 2018 landmark report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of a catastrophic climate breakdown if global average temperatures rose by 2°C. Negative consequences for our communities and planet would be long-lasting and, in some cases, irreversible. Recent events in countries like Australia have shown us a glimpse of the future and that the worst, if we do not act now, is yet to come.
Faced with our current state of climate emergency, science and data have already established the role and potential of the building and construction sector in helping to map a pathway to 1.5°C in line with the more progressive ambitions of the Paris Agreement.
Underpinning those ambitions is a projected transition to net-zero carbon emissions with specific transformations to be met by 2030 and 2050.
Carbon emissions are released not only during the operation of buildings but also during the manufacturing and transportation of materials, construction and end-of-life phases of all built assets – buildings and infrastructure alike. Largely overlooked historically, these embodied carbon emissions account for around 11 per cent of all carbon emissions worldwide.
If we drill down further, we see that carbon emissions released before a building or infrastructure enters use (so-called ‘upfront’ carbon) will account for half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050. This upfront carbon therefore threatens a large chunk of our residual carbon budget, and it’s occurring right now.
Today, increasingly smarter urban planning is maximising opportunities for low-carbon design in buildings and surrounding infrastructure.
When buildings are viewed as, for example, an energy source for electric vehicles, it’s clear that interdisciplinary boundaries are being crossed. Building design can therefore be part of a bigger picture that also takes in transport and urban planning.
It is worth reminding ourselves that low-carbon building design also considers future-use and end-of-life scenarios, maximising the potential for maintenance, repair, renovation and adaptation. Smart design for disassembly and deconstruction chooses and uses materials which can be recycled, or which can be extracted and separated easily for processing.
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