COP 27: A timely reminder of the urgent need to decarbonise the built environment

Kevin Mcguane, energy services director, DMA Group believes that COP27 should serve as a wake-up call for governments and the entire building sector

Our news agendas are currently dominated by the conflict in Ukraine and how it has turbocharged an acute energy availability and affordability crisis. Businesses and consumers are feeling the pinch. With energy prices soaring, it has taken unprecedented government intervention to keep bills at a level that, it is hoped, will not send firms to the wall and more people into dire poverty.  Meanwhile, the current situation has also highlighted the importance of being energy efficient as another means of keeping costs under control.

Indeed, the arrival of COP 27 comes at a timely moment. The conference in Sharm El Sheikh is seeking to draw the world’s attention to a series of long-term challenges that will prevail long beyond the geopolitical and economic shockwaves being felt currently. Last year’s COP 26 was all about obtaining commitments to the 1.5-degree global warming target. In Egypt, the onus is very much on working together to put climate promises into action and implementing current plans. This includes taking the decarbonisation of our built environment seriously.

The Building to COP Coalition, a group of sustainability-focused built environment NGOs and organisations working together alongside the UN High Level Climate Champions, hosted a busy programme of events throughout the COP 27 summit, reminding us of the imperative to decarbonise the world’s building stock.

Today, buildings are responsible for around 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions and 50% of all extracted materials. This huge strain on natural resources is accelerating the impacts of climate change, with inefficient and unhealthy buildings also posing an acute threat to human health and wellbeing. Indeed, by 2050, it is predicted that 1.6 billion urban citizens will be exposed to extremely high temperatures on a regular basis, with 800 million people living across more than 570 cities vulnerable to sea level rises and coastal flooding. 

And there is a sound economic case for decarbonising the built environment, too. By 2030, the investment opportunity around making buildings more energy efficient will be worth $24.7 trillion. However, currently just three per cent of money spent on new construction is targeted towards efficient buildings. We should not forget existing buildings either. Around eight in ten of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been constructed – this means that any local, national or international strategies to reach net zero simply must factor in making our current stock more sustainable. 

The various built environment events at COP 27 also highlighted that there are many ways to reduce the carbon footprint of a building. In my opinion and tying back into the dealing with the current energy crisis, this should always start with reducing energy demand. Improved roof and wall insulation, double and triple glazing, LED and smart lighting, better controls, and more efficient M&E maintenance… these are just some simple steps that represent a solid starting point, and something which the UK government must support more keenly with grants and subsidies.

Once those efficiency improvements have been made and the building consumption has been optimised, considering more elaborate solutions such as renewables becomes more appropriate. Heat pumps, solar panels, wind and waste heat recovery will all support achieving net zero. But we must acknowledge the incredible lead times when it comes to receiving heat pumps. We are seeing them take up to 40 weeks, with solar storage batteries taking up to 14 months. Many of the parts for these plants are imported from China, which continues to enforce Covid restrictions. Every time there is a lockdown, this has a significant impact on the global supply chain resulting in huge delays.

Failure to make headway with this kind of retrofitting has the potential to derail the UK’s net zero journey. Put simply, the country is not refurbishing its building stock quickly enough. According to the inaugural Global Retrofit Index, the UK is ranked fourth in the league of G20 nations – but, tellingly, none of them are on track to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

To bring the sector in line with net zero targets, energy intensity must drop five times faster over the next decade than it did between 2015 and 2020 – that means cutting direct emissions by 50% and indirect emissions by 60 per cent by 2020.  COP 27, therefore, should serve as a wake-up call for governments and the entire building sector.

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