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How to slash buildings’ growing greenhouse gas emissions

A new UN report gives a blueprint for greener buildings

Sunset from the Empire State Building in New York City
 The view north to Rockefeller Center, Billionaires’ Row, Central Park, and One Vanderbilt as seen from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building as the sun sets on December 15, 2020 in New York City.
Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Carbon dioxide coming from the buildings where we live and work set a new record in 2019. What’s more, those planet-heating emissions will probably keep rising after the pandemic, the authors of a new UN report warn. The report urges governments to make structures more energy efficient and speed up a transition to renewable energy. Doing that could be a great way to address both the climate crisis and the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

The building sector was responsible for a whopping 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally in 2019, the report says. For comparison, all the planes, trains, automobiles, and other transportation in the world only pump out about 24 percent of global carbon emissions. Growing prosperity around the world, especially in developing nations that don’t yet have a lot of renewable energy, led to higher-than-normal rise in building sector emissions last year. When economies grow, there’s more construction, larger floor plans for buildings, and more energy-guzzling appliances and electronics filling those spaces.

Air conditioning is one of the biggest worries when it comes to energy-hungry buildings. Economic development in hotter climates comes with a big bump in emissions from air conditioners. Historic heatwaves during 2019, the second hottest year on record, was another reason why that year saw the most building emissions on record, according to the International Energy Agency. “The need for more energy efficient air conditioning is so vital to the future of both emissions [and] the reality of what we’re building,” says Ian Hamilton, lead coordinating author of the new report. “Those lovely, great big glassy towers in hot parts of the world rely so heavily on air conditioning for them to be comfortable, livable.”

Economic prosperity doesn’t need to translate into more planet-heating pollution. About 10 percent of buildings’ environmental footprint comes from their construction and materials. But most of the emissions that buildings are responsible for come from the energy used for heating, cooling, and lighting. Right now, fossil fuels are still a large part of the energy mix — which is what report authors hope to see change.

“There’s still lots and lots of work to be done there,” says Hamilton. “If electricity isn’t decarbonized, our emissions are going to carry on.”

Progress has actually slowed over the past several years, the report found. Buildings’ rate of improvement dropped in half between 2016 and 2019. “This gives us a failing direction grade,” Hamilton says. “The reality is that we had been making progress in 2015, 2016 towards that goal of the Paris [climate] Agreement. But in the last few years, that really tailed off.”

The Paris Agreement is a global commitment to stop the planet from heating more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The world is still on track to surpass that threshold, which scientists warn could transform our planet in devastating ways. To hit the Paris goal, every corner of our economy will need to reach net zero carbon pollution — releasing no more carbon dioxide than they draw down — by 2050. For that to become reality, building sector emissions need to keep falling by 6 percent every year until 2030.

The pandemic slashed global emissions by about 7 percent this year. But in the future, pollution cuts will need to be intentional. There’s been a push from some concerned leaders to ensure that pandemic recovery dovetails with efforts to tackle climate change. In the US, President-elect Joe Biden plans to create 10 million new jobs in clean energy and another million jobs in constructing and upgrading sustainable homes and buildings.

The new report also urges world leaders to include buildings in their plans to address climate change. Countries are expected to boost their plans for climate action by next year as part of the Paris Agreement. That’s really important for bringing more renewable energy to city grids and buildings.

At a local level, cities can update their building codes. New York City, for example, passed a series of bills in 2019 and 2020 aimed at slashing carbon dioxide emissions from buildings that are responsible for 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gases. That includes mandates to better insulate buildings and requirements for more efficient lighting, heating, and cooling systems.

“Keeping us on track [for climate targets] will be a driver of construction jobs. It will be an opportunity to help the broader state economy get back on track with what was already a fast growing sector,” Alicia Barton, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, told The Verge earlier this year. “Hopefully if we can think smartly about things the state can do and potentially see investments from the federal government, we have a good opportunity to seize a challenging moment and turn it into a moment of opportunity.”