It’s time to cut the emissions from creating our homes and offices

Scaffolding covers the front of a building shell while men work in the rooms

Labourers work at an apartment block under construction in Chalandri suburb north of Athens, May 19, 2009. GREECE CONSTRUCTION/ REUTERS/John Kolesidis

The first step is getting people as excited about cutting ‘built environment’ pollution as plastic or food waste.

Michael Shank is the director of engagement for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

With Indonesian islanders suing cement producers for climate damages recently, buildings are getting much-needed attention for their carbon-heavy footprint.

The built environment generates nearly 50% of annual global emissions. Yet buildings hardly receive the climate activism commensurate with their impact - despite concrete being the second-most consumed material after water.

Lawsuits help change that.

Yes, buildings are getting attention. The industry is launching tools to calculate “embodied carbon”, European cities are calling for resources to decarbonize buildings, and members of the European Parliament are pushing to ensure communities are leading the building transition. Our Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance members have been leading on this for years.

But the built environment isn’t on everyone’s mind. The public isn’t using “building decarbonization” and “net-zero buildings”, nor are they talking about “operational carbon” (the carbon emitted operating a building) and “embodied carbon” (the carbon emitted making a building).

When you talk with the public about climate action, they’ll point to recycling, electric vehicles, solar panels, mass transit, heat pumps and plant-based diets. This has been covered by the press; it’s easier to reiterate. It’s less likely they’ll point to “the built environment”.

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While they might reference a building’s operational emissions – turning lights off, turning down heating or cooling, or weatherizing for energy efficiency – it’s less likely they’ll think about the emissions embodied in their built office or home environments, and those material supply chains and construction processes.

How often do people talk about reducing drywall and insulation’s life-cycle carbon footprint, or steel, concrete, or carpet’s footprint? It’s not on the tip of the public’s tongue.

We need to widen the public and policymakers’ lens so that it’s a part of everyday conversations on climate action. So that when we talk about electric vehicles, solar roof tiles or fair-trade and organic fashion, we can add the buildings in which we spend so much time working, sleeping, and eating.

And not just for environmental reasons. There are a host of compelling health, energy and workforce benefits when decarbonizing buildings and greening building supply chains.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlighted potential savings in its 2022 report on Decarbonizing Buildings in Cities and Regions. They’re significant.

Nearly 200 billion euros are available in reduced health expenditures, and with every $1 million invested in building decarbonization, up to 30 jobs are created. Further, with low-income households facing energy poverty, building decarbonization is a just, equitable investment, especially when community led.

These benefits extend to more sustainable building supply chains, too, which are not just about good green jobs and healthier environments for people and planet. It’s about building resilience to withstand future shocks, something the EU committed to pursuing post-pandemic. 

All these wins the public can understand.

Yet, cities – who are closest to the public, familiar with local building stock, and responsible for building and zoning regulations – need help making the case.

When asked by the OECD what cities needed from national governments, while 95% of cities said financial support to advance pilot projects was top priority, 74% of cities asked for help raising awareness among the public.

These two needs outpaced other requests. The third request, at 58%, was for help removing barriers in national regulation that inhibit local actions.

The first and third points above – on financial and regulatory support, respectively – will get a boost in the EU from the recently agreed-upon Green New Deal, energy efficiency and energy performance directives, and efforts to strengthen them in order to decarbonize all EU buildings.

It’s that second priority, regarding public awareness-raising, that may get short shrift by governments who don’t understand the need.

Buildings could easily be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. How buildings and their materials are sourced, built, operated, renovated, and recycled could be as much a priority as single-use plastics.

But the public needs to see it,  the good and the bad that goes into a building. Imagine Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” but for the story of buildings. Imagine fashion’s carbon labeling but for the built environment.

Buildings need campaigns, with stories that illustrate how life is better in a decarbonized building, from the birth and building of it, to the operating of it.

Stories that illuminate the health benefits, cost savings benefits, and workforce benefits – all the things, all along the supply chain – for everyone and everything involved., from the miner to the manufacturer, the concrete to the countertop, the resourcing to the reusing, the assembling to the dissembling.

The simpler and sooner the better.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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