NewsletterSustainable Solutions

USGBC Advocates for Better Buildings to Fight Climate Change

As buildings account for about 40% of global emissions and are not stopping, USGBC has the answers.

According to USGBC, there are four actions the building industry should take in order to start the process of fighting climate change.

Building commitments must be increased.
Despite their critical importance in the decarbonization puzzle, buildings have been conspicuously absent from NDCs. An analysis from the Building to COP26 consortium found that out of the 186 countries that have submitted NDCs, only 136 countries mention buildings. The scope and detail of building plans varies—only 53 mention building efficiency and 38 mention building energy codes.

Countries will need to build out much more detailed and holistic plans to address their building sectors. This should include full decarbonization targets and concrete building policies and measures, such as stringent energy codes, building performance standards, deep retrofits and electrification.

Existing buildings need to be part of the solution.
Understandably, there’s a lot of emphasis on new buildings in decarbonization conversations: Ribbon-cutting ceremonies of sleek new buildings are politically potent images. Although new buildings are a critical component of achieving net zero, we must not lose sight on the less glamorous task of retuning and retrofitting existing buildings to be as efficient as possible—especially in developed countries, where most of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already built.

Average annual energy retrofit rates in buildings are currently less than 1% in most major markets, well below the level required to achieve sustainability objectives. Most buildings in advanced economies, where heating demand is concentrated, were built before there were effective building codes. The IEA recommends that building retrofits in developed countries increase to an average of 2% per year by 2025, and 3% annually by 2040. IEA also recommends increasing deep retrofits that reduce a building’s energy consumption by 30–50% or more.

Embodied carbon must be addressed.
It can take 80 years for a new building to overcome the climate impacts created by its construction—even if the building itself is highly efficient. While many decarbonization efforts have focused on the operational emissions of buildings—referring to the emissions released from the daily use of the building—analytical models consistently find that embodied carbon will need to be addressed if we are collectively to achieve net zero emissions.

Embodied carbon refers to the emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout a building’s life cycle, including CO2 created during the manufacturing of building materials (material extraction, transport to manufacturer and manufacturing), the transport of those materials to the job site, and the construction practices used. Estimates suggest that embodied carbon contributes to 11% of global emissions. Without significant action, embodied carbon will continue to grow in proportion to total emissions.

Ahead of COP26, the World Green Building Council expanded the scope of its Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to include embodied carbon emissions from the building and construction sector. USGBC welcomes increased attention to embodied carbon and offers resources, LEED credits and education courses to help reduce this impact through both materials selection and whole building approaches.

Commitments need robust solutions.
While countries will need to implement strong policy and regulatory initiatives to address these gaps in building sector emissions, market-based tools are also critical. USGBC’s delegation is attending COP26 to position LEED as a comprehensive framework for addressing building performance through the entire life cycle: from design and construction to operations, maintenance and end-of-life considerations.

LEED for Operations and Maintenance (O+M) and Arc, for instance, work in tandem to help building owners and managers measure the performance of existing buildings. Plus, the LEED v4.1 Materials and Resources credit addresses embodied carbon by rewarding building reuse, life-cycle analysis in the form of whole-building life cycle assessment and environmental product declarations, material ingredient reporting and optimization, responsible sourcing of raw materials; and waste reduction and management.

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