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Carbon emissions from buildings need to be tackled now, UN urges

The carbon emissions resulting from the operation of buildings around the world hit an all-time high in 2019, endangering climate goals, a report has found.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), when adding emissions from the building construction industry on top of operational emissions, the sector accounted for 38 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions.

It urged governments to implement deep building renovation and performance standards for newly constructed buildings into pandemic recovery packages.

This could include widespread programmes to insulate buildings in order to boost energy efficiency, a proposal the UK government was urged to undertake in June.

The 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction found that while global building energy consumption remained steady year-on-year, energy-related CO2 emissions increased to 9.95 Gt in 2019.

This increase was due to a shift away from the direct use of coal, oil and traditional biomass towards electricity, which had a higher carbon content due to the high proportion of fossil fuels used in generation.

“Rising emissions in the buildings and construction sector emphasise the urgent need for a triple strategy to aggressively reduce energy demand in the built environment, decarbonise the power sector and implement materials strategies that reduce lifecycle carbon emissions,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

“Green recovery packages can provide the spark that will get us moving rapidly in the right direction.

“Moving the buildings and construction sector onto a low-carbon pathway will slow climate change and deliver strong economic recovery benefits, so it should be a clear priority for all governments.”

To meet targets of achieving net-zero carbon building stock by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that direct building CO2 emissions need to fall by 50 per cent and indirect building sector emissions by 60 per cent by the year 2030. This equates to building sector emissions falling annually by around 6 per cent until that time.

While construction activities have dropped by 20 to 30 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019 as a result of the pandemic and around ten per cent of overall jobs have been lost or are at risk across the building construction sector, stimulus programmes for the building and construction sector can create jobs, boost economic activity, and activate local value chains, the report found.

Most countries have yet to submit their second nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as all countries under the Paris Agreement are obliged to do by the end of 2020.

According to UNEP, buildings remain a major area that lacks specific mitigation policies, despite its importance to global CO2 emissions. Of those who have submitted an NDC, 136 countries mention buildings, 53 countries mention building energy efficiency, and only 38 specifically call out building energy codes.

“National governments must step up commitments in NDCs, longer-term climate strategies and support for regulation to spur uptake of net-zero emissions buildings. This means prioritising performance-based, mandatory building energy codes alongside widespread certification measures and working closely with sub-national governments to facilitate adoption and implementation,” the report states.

Nigel Topping, who was appointed by the UK government as its High-Level Climate Champion for the forthcoming COP26 talks, said: “We need to challenge the incumbency of steel and concrete.

“Whether or not zero carbon steel and concrete become the materials of the future will depend on how fast those industries innovate in the face of new and disruptive technologies.”

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