Q&A: The push for reduced carbon in the construction industry

Q&A: The push for reduced carbon in the construction industry

Victoria Kate Burrows discusses The World Green Building Council’s push for reduced carbon emissions in construction.

June 19, 2018
Adam Redling
Association Activities Construction Green Building

The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) recently made news when it launched its new Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment June 6.

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment challenges businesses and organizations across the world to take advanced climate action by setting ambitious targets to eliminate operational carbon emissions from their building portfolios by 2030 in order to meet the Paris Agreement ambition of staying below 2 degrees of global warming.

Construction & Demolition Recycling spoke with Victoria Kate Burrows, project manager, Advancing Net Zero at the WorldGBC, to discuss the origins of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment and what it means for businesses working in the construction space.

Construction & Demolition Recycling (C&DR): How did the idea of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment come about?

Victoria Kate Burrows (VKB): Following the announcement of the Paris Agreement at COP21, signalled as a “historic moment in the fight against climate change,” the World Green Building Council issued a challenge to our global network of over 70 green buildings councils to develop certification tools for their market that recognize buildings that perform at net zero carbon. We recognize the significant potential, and proven impacts, of green building rating tools to help drive market uptake and redefine what green buildings are, and we now have six zero carbon building rating tools released, and an additional five expected by early 2019.

In 2017, we launched our report “From thousands to billions: Coordinated action towards 100% net zero carbon buildings by 2050,” in which we set out specific actions for business, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take to facilitate the transition. Our green building councils, as NGOs, are working towards mass market transformation through the development of tools such as certification schemes and capacity building through knowledge sharing and educational resources.

Therefore, we have developed the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to formalize this action, on a more advanced trajectory by 2030, from business and sub-national government (cities, states and regions). This will signal to the market the strong demand and ambition for a cleaner built environment, and kick-start action towards mass delivery at scale. From research into potential founding signatories, such as those announced when we recently opened the Commitment for recruitment, there are some very inspiring examples from across the world, from all corners of industry. This Commitment allows public declaration of that action towards a common goal to help inspire wider and deeper uptake.

Our green building councils are working to ensure they can support their members in delivering against the Commitment, to develop locally appropriate solutions to the global challenge, and demonstrate progress towards their decarbonization goals.

C&DR: What is your message to those in the construction, demolition or recycling industries regarding participation in this initiative?

VKB: The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is unique in that it combines requirements of reduction of energy demand through energy efficiency measures and renewable energy solutions to decarbonize the grid. It also requires tracking, verification and reporting using existing reporting protocols, which will ensure it drives real results, and requires signatories to report against their progress. Finally, it requires signatories to demonstrate a net zero carbon emissions balance at a global portfolio level, plus demonstrate building level improvements, including certification of assets, where possible. Green building certification schemes help demonstrate that buildings achieve energy performance better than local regulatory minimum, or the average performance of buildings of a similar type. They therefore help reduce overall energy consumption as a core component of a portfolio decarbonization strategy.

This approach will deliver tangible performance improvements across the sector, to support decarbonization and reduce energy wastage. We know that net zero carbon buildings are possible, feasible and necessary—we now need them to be delivered at scale, and in a way that supports an organization’s core business. This helps strengthen the business case for participation.

Therefore, the Commitment also requires signatories to demonstrate leadership through their core business activities to support the transition towards net zero carbon buildings through their supply chain. In this way, they will act as a catalyst for further action globally and facilitate more momentum towards achieving the target of zero emissions by 2050.

C&DR: Taking on “green” initiatives is not always the most cost-effective or expedient way of operating. Can you explain why it makes sense for those in the building industries to participate in the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment?

VKB: There is strong and compelling evidence to suggest that energy efficiency, and measures to improve energy productivity, have multiple and long-term benefits to a buildings’ performance and occupant satisfaction. An integrated solution to addressing reduction of energy demand, while supporting and enhancing core business functions, is the most cost-effective way to implement energy-efficiency measures. These should not be seen in isolation, but considered in terms of whole life impacts, to ensure maximum return on investment.

The new question is not whether it is cost effective to address these issues, it is whether you can afford not to.

C&DR: In a release, WorldGBC notes, “Commitment signatories will track, verify and report publicly on building performance metrics with a focus on energy use and associated emissions.” Can you explain how this might be put into practice? 

VKB: The Commitment aligns with existing market tools to enable signatories to use reporting mechanisms they already use to report on carbon. This ensures there are not additional reporting requirements, and serves to streamline reporting protocols, while ensuring quality assurance.

Signatories will be required to report annually on both energy demand reduction and carbon emissions reduction, to ensure both are being addressed adequately. A decarbonization plan to identify possible interventions, technologies and solutions tailored for an organization’s portfolio will identify the types of measures required, and may require adjustment based on annual progress.

For both portfolio and asset-level (building-level) verification, there are several existing tools in the market that organizations may choose to adopt, including those operated by green buildings councils to determine a net zero carbon emissions balance at portfolio and/or building level.

This approach will ensure that the initiative will deliver results towards eliminating carbon emissions from the built environment, without requiring bespoke reporting.

C&DR: Why is right now the appropriate time for this measure?

VKB: We urgently need to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels and support a transition towards a zero emissions future in order to achieve the carbon emission targets, and therefore a below-two-degrees scenario, set out by the Paris Agreement.

The Commitment will be formally launched along with several other pledges aimed at business and sub-national government at the Global Climate Action Summit. This event intends to showcase the leadership in climate action being taken around the world, in order to inspire deeper commitments from wider industry and national governments.

We strongly believe that there must be greater collaboration between all sectors to overcome the technical, financial and regulatory barriers currently preventing the scale of net zero carbon buildings required. The time to act is now.

C&DR: What are some practical steps most construction and building companies could start taking to reduce their carbon footprint?

VKB: Currently, the buildings we live, work and play in and their construction are responsible for 39 percent of energy-related total direct and indirect CO2 emissions. The emissions from their operations alone to heat, light and cool them comprise the majority of these emissions at 28 percent [IEA, Global Status Report 2017].  Therefore, buildings offer significant potential for construction and building companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint—from both the buildings they occupy and core business operations. 

In order improve upon your organization’s emissions, you need to understand where they come from. Ensuring a comprehensive energy data management system that allows you to identify where the largest loads are from will allow prioritization of focus areas for the greatest savings and impact. 

Solutions towards reducing carbon emissions should be holistic, integrated and simple.  They should also provide cleaner air, reduce risk of pollution and demonstrate responsible business operations. Interventions must be considered at every opportunity: such as maintenance and building upgrades, acquisitions, new contracts and demolition projects. Carbon must be dealt with with the same importance and consideration as a financial budget and should be a key factor in decision-making. Consider incorporating measures to decarbonize the grid, and futureproof buildings and project sites for a zero emissions future.

Your roadmap to decarbonization of your buildings and wider supply chain is your new business case.