(CN) — Coming off a year where greenhouse gas emissions from buildings hit record highs, energy experts from the United Nations reported Wednesday that pandemic-recovery efforts give the globe an opportunity to make construction more efficient as global city populations boom.
In all, buildings account for 38% of the planet’s CO2 emissions from energy, but are often overlooked in climate commitments, according to a panel who announced the findings Wednesday morning of the 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction.
The report says energy consumption by buildings has remained steady even as they move away from coal and oil toward electricity, but carbon dioxide emissions have gone higher because of the fossil fuels used to generate electric power.
That’s moving “in the wrong direction,” said Ian Hamilton, an associate professor at the University College London Energy Institute, who co-authored the report.
This year’s report includes a new tracking tool to gauge how buildings are performing, based on Paris Agreement goals. The tracker found that annual building improvement has been decreasing on average; it halved between 2016 to 2019.
“To get the buildings sector on track to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050,” the report states, “all actors across the buildings value chain need to contribute to the effort to reverse this trend and increase decarbonization actions and their impact by a factor of 5.”
By 2030, direct building CO2 emissions need to be cut in half, and indirect emissions reduced by 60%, in order to meet the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions from buildings by 2050.
To that end, each year, building emissions would have to decrease by around 6%. In 2020, global energy CO2 emissions fell 7% due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In turn, economic stimulus packages related to the pandemic can be used to invest in more efficient buildings, according to Wednesday’s report. A pandemic recovery focused on the environment could cut emissions by as much as 25%, giving the planet a boost toward meeting Paris Agreement goals that scientists say are increasingly out of reach.
Recovery packages can “support and enhance” climate goals, Hamilton said, as a way to “be sure we are building back both greener and better.”
“The time for action to decarbonize is now,” Hamilton said.
The report called green buildings one of the biggest opportunities in the next decade for global investment, which is estimated to be around $24.7 trillion by 2030.
Spending on energy efficient buildings grew 3% across the globe in 2019, the first increase in three years, totaling $152 billion.
While that’s promising, Hamilton noted that, for every dollar spent on green infrastructure, many more are invested in conventional buildings that don’t advance climate goals.
That’s where government and industry can partner, panelists said. Governments can build decarbonization requirements into any pandemic recovery packages they issue, for instance, directing money toward low-carbon buildings and creating jobs.
For every million dollars invested in retrofitting buildings or improving efficiency, 30 manufacturing or construction jobs would be created under a sustainable recovery plan designed by the International Energy Agency.
Speaking to the industry side of things, Cedric de Meeûs from Switzerland-based building materials company LafargeHolcim joined the panel. He said “unprecedented and radical collaboration” between industry and government will be the backbone of improving building efficiency.
LafargeHolcim began building a green concrete “not because there was a huge demand for it,” de Meeûs said, but to pitch the idea to customers. He said using green building materials will be necessary to meet the housing demand created by a predicted population explosion, especially in cities.
The United Nations has estimated that 2.5 billion people will be added to cities over the next 30 years, which de Meeûs said translates to building 13,000 houses every day until 2050.
“That is overwhelming,” he said, and speaks to the need for “multidimensional innovation,” even beyond technology and materials.
“It’s about data science, it’s about robotic programmers, it’s about system thinkers,” de Meeûs continued.
The report calls for governments to ramp up long-term commitments to low-carbon buildings, which are often overlooked in national climate programs. Countries can institute mandatory energy codes and create robust certification programs.
In the past, buildings have been a “sleeping giant” for climate action, shrouded by a fragmented industry, explained Martina Otto, head of the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction.
That’s a major reason behind the annual buildings report, Otto said. Now, the report illustrates what has to happen, and calls for radical action going forward.
“It’s fair to say we have woken up the giant,” Otto said.