UN director urges greater effort from built environment sector


In yesterday’s sessions Inger Andersen, under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, called on delegates to address the massive climate impact of the built environment while questioning whether current pledges are sufficient. “Over the last year, ‘build back better’ became something of a refrain as many have called for a sustainable recovery from the pandemic,” she said.  “There is a simpler message that resonates almost as strongly: we need to build better.”  

Andersen believes that the new and updated Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, are not strong enough. Additional promises are not strong enough. Net-zero pledges are too vague. ”As things stand, we need to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions over the next eight years to put us on the path to a 1.5°C temperature rise,” she added. “We cannot achieve this goal unless we reduce the building and construction sector’s massive climate impact.” 

The numbers are clear. Buildings and construction are responsible for 37 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, with construction materials accounting for 10 per cent of these global carbon emissions.   

“Over half of the buildings that will stand in 2060 are not yet built, so following current models will only worsen the impact,” Andersen continued. ”Equally, we do not place enough emphasis on resilience. A typical building constructed today will still be in use in 2070. The climate impacts that building will need to withstand will be very different. And of course, this emphasis on the new built does not mean we lean back when it comes to existing buildings; here deep renovation can deliver both, higher energy performance and liveability.”  

She concedes that progress has been made but believes it is too little and too slow. Between 2015 and 2020, 19 additional countries put building energy codes in place. Yet most construction will take place in countries without such codes. Building energy efficiency is becoming more prominent in NDCs. But concrete targets are missing. In 2020, building energy efficiency investment increased by 11 per cent. But most of this increase comes from a few countries. “For every dollar invested in energy efficiency in buildings, we see roughly 37 going into conventional buildings,” she explained. “We need to move from these incremental changes to real sector transformation. We need to build better.”  

However, amidst the concern there is the prospect of change heralded by two major advances, one is a joint vision, the other the start of deep cooperation.   

The vision calls for the sector to halve its emissions by 2030, with new buildings becoming net zero in operation. “It calls for more attention to embodied carbon,” Andersen adds. ”It calls for net zero across the whole life cycle for all new and existing assets by 2050. As the host of the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, UNEP is proud to have contributed to forging this vision, through global and regional roadmaps.    

“Now we need to put the scaffolding in place to achieve the vision. National roadmaps. Mandatory and performance-based building codes. Value chains for alternative buildings materials that take us to circular economy models. Cooperation under the #BuildingToCOP26 Coalition, a group of business and government networks in the sustainable built environment space, will be essential to take us to where we need to be. We look forward to working closely with our co-leads of this Coalition in driving this forward.” 

Some of the most cost-effective mitigation and resilience solutions are in the buildings and construction sector, which offer benefits far beyond climate. Nine to 30 jobs are created for every $1 million invested in energy efficiency renovation and new construction. A surge in clean energy investment would cut in half household spending on energy while making the sector circular and efficient would reduce the use of virgin resources, easing pressure on nature and biodiversity.  

“These benefits will not come automatically,” Andersen concluded. “We need to commit and invest. Realising sustainable buildings requires annual capital flows to increase by an average of $27 billion over the next decade. But there is still a chance to future proof buildings through the 14 per cent of COVID-19 recovery spending going into the sector.  

“Cities and companies are making commitments to Zero Carbon. Over 1,000 cities have joined. $1.2 trillion of real estate assets under management are now a part of Race to Zero. Countries are making commitments, including through the ‘Buildings as Critical Climate Solution (BCCS)’ commitment. 

“In common with the rest of the climate agenda – and the biodiversity and pollution agendas – we must now turn these commitments into action. Into transformation. Into a building and construction sector that both slows climate change and can withstand its impacts. We must build better.” 

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