The role buildings play in climate change will be under the microscope at COP26


Oliver Iltisberger, president of the smart buildings division at ABB, explains how the built environment can play its part in tackling emissions and climate change. 

In Glasgow this November, a full day of the COP26 meeting will be dedicated to the built environment for the first time.   

And it is no surprise. The role buildings play in carbon emissions has passed under the radar for many years. Ask the average person to name what sectors they believe emit the most CO2 and they are likely to point their finger at manufacturing or transportation. Yet buildings consume more than 30 percent of the world’s energy and contribute almost 40 percentof global carbon emissions. 

COP26 demonstrates the united front that national governments are taking in addressing climate change and carbon emissions. 

A move to more energy-efficient buildings will now be central to global carbon reduction strategies. With developers and estate owners expected to include active emission mitigation technology in their developments from the outset, building sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’ option, it is an essential part of the multi-pronged approach to create a better, more energy-efficient world.  

With the spotlight now firmly on sustainable buildings, the solution for developers and real estate owners lies in the integration of smart technology into new builds and retrofitting on existing sites. 

So, what does the smart building look like? A smart building uses interconnected technologies to improve comfort and performance across energy management, water use, air conditioning, access, automation, lighting, remote monitoring and communication networks - to name but a few. By integrating technologies, there is a significant opportunity to increase return on investment while also meeting tough environmental targets.   

The concept of smart buildings is not new. Architects and developers have been installing separate systems to control lighting, heating and ventilation for decades. What is new are cloud-based platforms which allow these vital facility systems to integrate seamlessly with each other. They can deliver a single view of how efficiently and effectively a building operates. With this data, managers can take proactive steps to avoid waste and improve use, cutting emissions and making cost savings at the same time.   

The increasing integration of artificial intelligence means that smart offices can continually learn how occupants use their space and services, and proactively adjust systems to maximize health and comfort. During the working day sensors can adapt the environment to each user so light, oxygen content and temperature are adjusted, based on their personal preferences from past working days. The result is not simply a reduction in a building’s emissions, but a more pleasant and secure environment for those who use them.  

Smart technology can also revitalize older building stock. At least 40 percent of the buildings in Europe were built before the 1960s and more than 70 percent of them energy inefficient. This ‘post-pandemic’ ‘quiet time’ presents a perfect opportunity to transform offices into smart, flexible and sustainable buildings that use digital technologies to reduce emissions and energy use, and create better working environments. 

There is a natural relationship between energy savings to benefit the environment and reducing energy costs. More effective and efficient use of power can save money, quickly repaying initial technology expenditure. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting alone can account for about 50 percent of energy use in an average commercial building. By incorporating smart automation, managers may see decreased energy costs of 30 percent to 50 percent.  

The introduction of technology such as photovoltaic cells onto the roof of buildings means that excess power can in some cases can be sold back to the grid, making the building energy positive and creating an additional revenue stream for owners.  

ABB believes it is essential that we not only work with customers towards a zero-emission future, but that we demonstrate these values ourselves. Our Mission to Zero program is part of our journey to become carbon neutral by 2030 – at our own sites while helping customers do the same. 

Our first carbon neutral site in Lüdenscheid, Germany for example, features a solar power plant that delivers around 1,190MWh of climate-neutral solar power a year. On sunny days, the site can generate enough power to cover 100 percent of the factory’s requirements.  

When used with the site’s cogeneration plant, Lüdenscheid generates an energy surplus of 14 percent, which is sold back into the public grid, meaning the site is energy positive. With more similar sites planned, this intelligent ecosystem enhances energy efficiency, sustainability and resource conservation to deliver a genuinely carbon positive site.  

COP26 will foreground some of the challenges faced by developers, architects and building managers but we are ready to support the sector with modular and cost-effective solutions that enable them to act now. With the smart adoption of technology, a zero-emission future is possible. As buildings adapt to the demands of their users or the goals of their managers, they can become safer, more secure and more pleasant to use, while radically reducing carbon emissions. The benefits of greater energy efficiency go well beyond the fight against climate change. They contribute broadly to environmental conservation, cleaner air and water, public health, energy independence, and stronger economic growth and development.   

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