One might think that Nora Steurer would be a bit discouraged right now. After all, when the program management officer for the United Nations’ global alliance for buildings and construction recently discussed the organization’s most recent report on global warming, the conclusions weren’t good.
The 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction
stated that carbon dioxide emissions over the past two years had declined to levels not seen since 2007. The irony, however, is that virtually all of this reduction was due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy. The Paris Agreement signed in 2015 aimed to limit global temperature increases to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. But the U.N.’s report has found little change in energy usage or the emissions of CO2, one of the main gases that a majority of scientists believe is warming the atmosphere.
There are dollars-and-cents reasons why this is becoming important. But it is also about the impact that climate change will have on all our lives.
– Ian Hamilton, Professor of energy, environment and health, University College London Energy Institute
This is even after spending vast sums of money ($184 billion in 2020 alone, according to the U.N.) to fund a variety of projects, including the development of renewable energy sources, retrofits to high-rise buildings and revamping of electrical grids. It still appears, at first glance, that these investments have made little difference so far. This is not a small matter for the commercial real estate sector. The U.N. estimates that construction activities and the operation of existing structures account for 36% of the world’s energy demand and 37% of CO2 emissions.
In other words, for those who believe that climate change is an existential threat, there is no solving the problem without figuring out how to reduce energy usage and emissions from buildings. To reach its targets, the U.N. maintains that the real estate and construction sectors must decarbonize throughout their life cycles.
So, it must be disheartening that, with only eight years to go before the U.N. deadline to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, there appears to be little if any major progress. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement increased by nearly 5% in 2021
. Still, Steurer shows no sign of despair when discussing what needs to be done for the commercial real estate sector to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“There are challenges for sure, but there are a lot of successes,” Steurer says of the push to reach the net-zero target. “Countries such as Denmark and France are doing fairly well. Could they do better? Sure. But we are seeing movement and we have to hang onto that.”
Ian Hamilton, a professor of energy, environment and health at the University College London Energy Institute — and one of the authors of the U.N. report — says that there have been major strides toward decarbonizing the power grid as countries increasingly use natural gas or renewable energy sources for electricity. Building insulation has improved. So have appliances, lighting, and heating and air conditioning systems to reduce energy usage. Another major development is the adoption of building energy codes. New York, for instance, has enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates the state’s reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
For every move forward, however, there appears to be a step back in the construction sector’s battle against carbon. Many cities are attempting to implement crucial codes or policies. But 82% of the world’s population to be added by 2030 will live in countries that currently have no building energy codes or voluntary codes only, the U.N. reports.
A major area of focus is on building materials, including concrete, the world’s most widely used construction material. The production, transportation and use of these materials require large amounts of energy and emit high levels of CO2. McKinsey & Co. estimates that the cement industry alone is responsible for about a quarter of all industry CO2 emissions
. The construction industry is creating decarbonized cement, where carbon is eliminated from the curing process, but it may be another decade before this technology is widely available.
“We won’t reach our goals without cement and concrete being decarbonized,” Steurer says. “That has to be part of the solution.”
Climate issues seem so immense that it’s hard to imagine ever meeting these goals without a new technological breakthrough that will save the day. Hamilton remains hopeful, however, because business leaders, government officials and even real estate investors are paying more attention to these issues. They all see climate change as a threat to their livelihoods.
“People want to invest in this area because they have a vested interest,” Hamilton says. “They want to know, how do we make this work? How do we solve these issues? How are we going to achieve these targets? People are starting to care about this issue. There are dollar-and-cents reasons why this is becoming important. But it is also about the impact that climate change will have on all our lives.” ●