If we are to realise a net-zero carbon future, we will need to dramatically change how we plan, construct and retrofit our built environment.
The buildings that we live and work in need to meet the growing demand for urban centres without locking-in a legacy of high-carbon infrastructure.
The vision is simple: achieve net-zero emissions across the built environment lifecycle by 2050. To reach the goal of 100% of all buildings (new and existing) to operate at net-zero carbon by 2050 (with net-zero embodied carbon), by 2030, at the latest, all new buildings must operate at net-zero carbon with a 40% reduction of embodied carbon.
Why? Because buildings and construction account for more than 35% of global final energy use and nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions, according to the UN Global Status Report.
With the demands of a growing population and specifically urban expansion – the sector is growing rapidly – the world has added about 50 billion square metres of new floor area over the last decade, the equivalent of adding a new Empire State Building every 25 minutes. By 2050, it is expected that total floor space will grow by another 75%, most of this in Asia and Africa.
New buildings are only half of the story. Existing buildings will need to be retrofitted to reduce energy demand and emissions from operations. This is especially the case in industrialized regions of the northern hemisphere, such as the US and Europe.
Policy makers are already leading the charge to create or transition to zero-carbon urban areas, with bold commitments that are acting as an impetus for change. The industries that are vital to the built environment are innovating and finding new approaches to help cut emissions – from the producers of construction materials to the companies that manage the way buildings are powered, used, maintained, connected and repurposed. Businesses are also helping to drive the transition by demanding lower-carbon buildings for their workforce, as they pursue their own emission reduction targets.
Change is happening – but the rate of change needs to accelerate to create the zero-carbon built environment of the future to avoid temperature increase above 1.5°C.
Delve into the progress below or simply click Take Action to see how business leaders and policy makers can help to accelerate the zero-carbon transition.TAKE ACTION
The building blocks of the zero-carbon economy
Cement, steel and glass are the key inputs of the built environment. The manufacture of these materials is slowly but surely being decarbonized. Construction companies are harnessing this innovation to help decarbonized new builds and put us on a trajectory for net-zero carbon buildings by 2050 at the latest.
Cement sector gets ambitious
The cement sector is responsible for 8% of global emissions. Leading cement companies are setting ambitious targets and actively cutting emissions from their industrial processes. Some of the largest cement companies in the world are taking bold action, including HeidelbergCement, UltraTech and LafargeHolcim who all now have approved science-based targets (SBTs). 16 cement companies have now committed to set an SBT to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
New statement proving industry commitment
40 of the world’s leading cement and concrete companies have unveiled a joint industry ‘2050 Climate Ambition’. The ambition statement, launched by the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) demonstrates the industry commitment to drive down the CO2 footprint of the world’s most used man-made product by 2050 and represents a critical milestone for the industry.
Steel sector steps up
Steel companies around the world are investing in cutting-edge technology to lower the carbon footprint of their end products, including increasing their scrap recycling and changing their electrification processes. India’s Mahindra Sanyo Special Steel became the first steel company to have an approved science-based target in 2018.
Thyssenkrupp, ArcelorMittal and Companhia Brasileira de Aluminio
German steelmaker Thyssenkrupp, which already has an approved science-based target, plans to phase out CO2 intensive coke-based steel production and replace it with a hydrogen-based process by 2050. Steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal has pledged carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050. Brazil’s largest aluminium producer Companhia Brasileira de Aluminio (CBA) has committed to setting a science-based target (SBT) aligned with the Business Ambition for 1.5ºC campaign.
Glass companies demonstrate vision
A substantial amount of glass is used in construction and leading glass companies are embracing the challenge of decarbonizing the industry. Three of the world’s ten largest glass manufacturers – Saint-Gobain, Owens Corning and Nippon Sheet Glass, with a joint 2019 revenue of $66.5bn, have all set science-based targets (SBTs) with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
Rising demand for low-carbon construction
Why are these industries changing? Partly in the face of increasing demand from businesses, cities, states and regions – which are regulating and requiring zero-carbon new builds to deliver on ever-more aggressive targets.
+80 construction and real estate companies
Over 80 construction and real estate companies have set ambitious science-based targets to reduce their emissions, including the fifth largest construction company in the world, Skansa and Japan’s biggest home construction company, Daiwa House.
LandSec makes progress on its science-based target
Property development companies are also stepping up. Landsec became the first commercial real estate company in the world to have its science-based target approved by the Science Based Targets initiative. Landsec have also committed to EP100, RE100 and EV100. The company cut carbon intensity in its portfolio by 48% since 2014 and has already surpassed its 2030 target 11 years early.
Net zero carbon buildings commitment
90 energy-smart companies committed to using energy more productively with the Climate Group’s EP100, including 65+ businesses and organisations committed to Net Zero Carbon Buildings. The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is led by the World Green Building Council as part of EP100.
Majid Al Futtaim commits to net-zero buildings
Majid Al Futtaim – the leading shopping mall and leisure pioneer across the Middle East and North Africa – is committed to only owning spaces that are net-zero carbon in operation by 2030, through EP100. Majid Al Futtaim reported in 2019 to have reduced its group-wide operational carbon emissions by 2.4% and water consumption by 1.6%, despite an increase in operational floor area by 37% since 2016.
Framework towards a net-zero built environment
WBCSD together with leading companies operating in the built environment, including ArcelorMittal and Saint-Gobain, have developed a new framework for aligning all actors of the built environment around a common language for carbon emissions.
Zero-energy buildings increase
We are starting to see the impact: the share of zero-energy buildings is increasing. The Government of Canada is currently investing CAD 48.4 million to support the development and implementation of deep retrofits for existing buildings and new net-zero-energy-ready buildings. The Japanese government has decided that net-zero or less-than-average energy consumption for new houses and buildings will be required by 2030.
NDCs specify buildings
Over 130 countries specify buildings in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – and 87 of these specified technology objectives, such as equipment performance, according to a report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction and IEA.
Creating zero-carbon cities of the future
Cities, states and regions are also investing. As well as cities, who can set their own regulations for new buildings, policymakers at every level are helping to create the zero-carbon cities and towns of the future, by ensuring that today’s buildings are constructed to the highest environmental standards.
C40 Cities connects the world’s cities
At a city level, local planning and regulation can set clear zero-carbon policies that have substantial impact. C40 Cities connects 96 of the world’s biggest cities – accounting for over 700 million citizens and one quarter of the global economy and including New York and Chennai. The majors of these cities are committed to delivering on the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement at the local level.
Cities embrace renewable energy
CDP reports that cities are currently instigating renewable energy developments valued at $2.3bn. This forms part of a wider shift by cities to develop 1,000 clean infrastructure projects, such as electric transport and energy efficiency, worth over $52 billion.
States and regions commit to emissions reduction
Signatories of the Under2 Coalition, which spans 220 governments, six continents and 43 countries, have collectively committed to remove between 4.6-5.0 Gt of C02 equivalent emissions per year by 2030. More than the current annual emissions of the European Union.
NDCs specify buildings
104 NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) mention specific actions to enhance energy-efficiency in buildings, building codes and energy certifications. Over 135 countries specify buildings in their NDCs and 87 of these specified technology objectives, such as equipment performance, according to a report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction and IEA.
Remote working becomes the new normal
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies to adopt remote working for employees where possible. Virtual offices provide businesses with an opportunity to change their way of working sustainably and reap the long-term benefits, including less office space and costs, less commuting, fewer business trips, improved cohesive working and greater focus and work-life balance for employees.
Zero carbon buildings and the 3P’s
Building construction and operations have an extensive impact on the environment, society and the economy, or the 3 P’s; People, Planet and Pocketbook. Sustainable design aims to achieve a balance between the needs of the 3 P’s and is more important than ever for the wellbeing of a population.
Indoor air quality monitoring for buildings
Where workers must return to their places of work following the Covid-19 pandemic, employers face the challenge of optimising the operational performance of buildings, as a way to minimise viral transmission. New and existing buildings must consider room temperature, humidity, outdoor ventilation and lighting to reduce risk of virus transmission.
Further benefits of sustainable building
Green building benefits go beyond economics and the environment and have been shown to bring positive social and cultural impacts too. Social benefits include, minimizes strain on local infrastructure, increases morale of occupants and improves worker productivity.
Better air, better sleep, better work
Workers in green, well ventilated offices record a 100% increase in brain function according to Harvard. Employees in offices with windows slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. Research also suggests that better indoor air quality ( low concentration of CO2 and pollutants with high ventilation rates) can lead to improvements in performance of up to 8%.
Innovative technologies – zero-carbon solutions
Innovative technologies are emerging to ensure tomorrow’s buildings are constructed, powered and managed with zero-carbon solutions, opening new business opportunities.
Wood makes a comeback
Using wood in construction has made a leap back into fashion. Research from the Energy Transitions Commission suggests that the substitution of timber for cement could play a major role in emissions reductions over the long term. The world’s tallest wooden building in the world is Mjostarnet, situated north of Oslo. Standing at just over 85 metres high it proves that tall buildings can be built using local resources, local suppliers and sustainable wooden materials.
Cement that cuts carbon emissions
Solidia Technologies is using an innovative technique that injects carbon back into cement in place of water, reducing the carbon footprint of final concrete by up to 70%. Construction chemicals company Chryso have joined forces with Solidia to further improve the performance of their ultra-low CO2 concrete and scale the use of greener concrete worldwide.
Improving heating and cooling
Growing demand for air conditioners is one of the critical blind spots in today’s energy debate. Improving residential cooling equipment performance would save 3.5 EJ of energy to 2025 – slightly less than total electricity use in India in 2015, according to one study.
Green bonds bring needed capital
To fund this transition and retro-fit the world’s building stock will take large amounts of capital. Green bonds that are tied to low-emission or zero-carbon buildings are expected to amount to 40% of the green bonds market, over the long-term.
ANZ Bank kick starts the process
The first green bond certified under the Low Carbon Buildings criteria was issued by the ANZ Bank in May 2015 with proceeds of A$600m allocated to green buildings, wind energy and solar energy loans in Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia.
Investors add pressure
And investors are applying pressure back onto the big manufacturers – European funds managing $2 trillion in assets have called on cement companies to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, warning that a failure to do so could put their business models at risk.
Challenges to overcome
Such a wholesale, and rapid transition to a net-zero carbon built environment doesn’t come without its challenges. These range from costs and technical challenges to simply a lack of data.
Retrofitting at pace
Retrofitting faces challenges in terms of scalability and costs, but there are also benefits such as resource usage. Furthermore, green buildings have been shown to save money through reduced energy and water consumption and lower long-term operations and maintenance costs, according to WGBC.
Change is happening faster than many expect.
The transition to a net-zero built environment is a huge challenge, but it has begun – and begun in earnest. What we are witnessing is a revolution happening right now, with signals of changes all around us. The scale of this transition is often surprising if you don’t see the whole picture.
The benefits will be immense – not only will the transition help address climate change, it will transform the towns, cities, factories and offices we work in, create jobs and sustainable growth, enhance the competitiveness of industry and protect the health of citizens. In addition, it will also create greater resilience in the economy, energy security and dramatically improve people’s quality of life – through better air quality, quieter cities and cleaner energy.
This is the kind of future we want. For ourselves and for future generations.
Despite all these clear signals of change and the momentum achieved, it’s not happening fast enough. Government and business can be more ambitious and speed up the delivery of climate action. To get to a fully net zero-carbon economy, the adoption of key solutions needs to accelerate to ensure progress happens faster across the entire Built Environment system.
We can and we are creating a better future – and it’s our goal to make it happen faster.
Join other leading businesses, step up and commit to bold climate action.
- Set an ambitious science-based emission reduction target that’s aligned with what science says is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
- Commit to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.
- If your company owns, occupies or develops buildings, commit to operate those buildings at net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, though EP100, led by The Climate Group.
Drive change at the pace and scale required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions globally by 2050.
- Enact policies to ensure all new buildings operate at net-zero by 2030.
- Develop and implement national roadmaps for the building sector that ensure all buildings and infrastructure are net-zero by 2050.
- Set aligned building codes for new and retrofit buildings and infrastructure, incentives for building retrofits, and public and private procurement standards.