The built environment, which includes buildings, infrastructure, and transportation systems, plays a significant role in contributing to climate change. In addition to contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, buildings are also vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, such as extreme weather events, sea level rise, and increased temperatures.
In order to address these issues, there is a growing emphasis on “climate-resilient” sustainable building design, which takes into account the potential future impacts of climate change and incorporates measures to reduce the building’s vulnerability. This can include things like designing buildings to be more energy-efficient, using low-carbon materials, reducing dependence on mechanical systems, and incorporating green or blue roofs and other features to make a building more self-sufficient.
Retrofitting existing buildings to improve their energy efficiency can also play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decreasing the energy consumption of buildings. This can be done by improving insulation and air sealing, updating HVAC systems, and incorporating renewable energy systems such as solar panels.
Overall, addressing the role of the built environment in climate change requires a comprehensive approach that considers both the emissions generated by buildings and infrastructure, as well as the vulnerability of these structures to the impacts of a changing climate. The way that cities and communities are designed and built can either exacerbate or mitigate the impacts of climate change. Reducing the impact and improving the resiliency of the built environment requires collaboration between various stakeholders such as architects, engineers, developers, environmental consultants, policymakers, and the public.
Why do we need a strategy?
In order to meet our climate targets all new buildings must operate at net-zero carbon by 2030 and all buildings operate at net-zero carbon by 2050. Decarbonizing the building sector means phasing out emissions from CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions until they are removed entirely.
The building and construction sector is solely responsible for 37% of all carbon emissions globally. Most of those greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy consumption of buildings. They are called Operational Emissions and represent 28% of the total emissions. The emissions associated with the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, and decommissioning of building materials are called Embodied Emissions (or Embodied Carbon) and are responsible for 9% of emissions annually.
In Canada, buildings account for 13% of Canada’s direct greenhouse gas emissions, or 88 megatons. Buildings represent Canada’s third-highest source of emissions.
Buildings as a solution to Climate ChangeCuts Costs
To better protect against the risks posed by climate change, such as floods, droughts, wildfires, and extreme weather events, it is crucial that our communities and infrastructure are made more resilient. This is especially important in Indigenous, northern, coastal, and remote areas. By investing in traditional and natural infrastructure solutions, including retrofits and upgrades, communities can improve their ability to withstand these risks, lower the costs associated with them, and ultimately increase their overall resilience.
There is a clear value proposition for a resilient and adaptable built environment with multiple benefits for governments, organizations, and building owners.
The cost of inaction, or ignoring the impacts of climate change will have significant financial and social costs. Inaction on climate change could cost the world’s economy US$178 trillion by 2070. By contrast, the global economy could gain US$43 trillion over the next five decades by rapidly accelerating the transition to net-zero.
Some of the strategies that can be implemented to increase resiliency include:
Operational Emissions reduction through energy efficiency
Operational emissions in a building refer to the emissions that are produced by the normal day-to-day operation of the building, such as heating, cooling, lighting, and other appliances. Heating is one of the largest contributors to operational emissions in buildings, especially in colder climates. Most of these emissions are caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, or coal for the use of boilers, furnaces, and heat pumps that burn fossil fuels to generate heat. Cooling systems, such as air conditioners, can also contribute to operational emissions if they rely on electricity generated from fossil fuels.
Lighting is another significant contributor to operational emissions in buildings. This includes emissions from the use of traditional incandescent bulbs, as well as energy consumption of lighting systems, such as LED.
Overall, operational emissions in a building can have a significant impact on the building’s carbon footprint and can be reduced through energy-efficient design and technologies, as well as the use of renewable energy sources.
To reduce operational emissions in buildings, some strategies that can be employed are:
Operational Emissions reduction through Electrification
Building electrification can be a powerful tool for reducing emissions and addressing climate change by shifting to cleaner and more efficient energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and helping to integrate other low-carbon technologies.
The electrification of buildings refers to the process of replacing fossil fuel-based systems, such as gas boilers, with clean electric-powered systems, such as heat pumps, for heating and cooling. The electrification of buildings can have a number of benefits when it comes to reducing emissions and addressing climate change. It allows for the use of cleaner, renewable electricity sources to power these systems, rather than relying on fossil fuels. As these sources produce little to no greenhouse gas emissions, using them to power buildings can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the building sector.
Another benefit of electrification is that it can improve energy efficiency. Electric-powered systems, such as heat pumps, are often more efficient than fossil fuel-based systems, which can lead to reduced energy consumption and associated emissions. Also, smart grid technology can be used to match the electricity demand with the available renewable energy supply.
Electrification can also facilitate the integration of other low-carbon technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage systems by creating a platform for the use of cleaner electricity. When buildings are electrified, they can easily be equipped with Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations, allowing residents to charge their EVs using cleaner electricity. This can help reduce emissions from transportation, which is another major contributor to overall emissions.
Reducing Embodied Emissions
Embodied Emissions have often been overlooked in traditional emissions reduction programs because they are hidden — “embodied” — in materials and manufacturing processes rather than emitted while a building is being used.
As we build more energy-efficient buildings and use low-carbon fuels, they become a more pressing issue.
To reduce embodied emissions, there are a few strategies that can be employed:
Achieving net-zero emissions in the built environment is a daunting task, but it is not impossible. With the right actions and investments, we can create a sustainable and resilient built environment for future generations. One of the most important steps we can take is to reduce the energy consumption of existing buildings through retrofits and upgrades. We can also encourage the construction of new buildings that are designed to be energy-efficient and use sustainable low-carbon materials. Additionally, we can promote the use of green infrastructure, such as green roofs and walls, to reduce the urban heat island effect and improve the resilience of communities.
Another important action is to implement policies and regulations that encourage the transition to a low-carbon built environment. This includes building codes and energy-efficiency standards, as well as incentives for the use of renewable energy. Finally, we need to engage with and educate the community to raise awareness of the importance of addressing climate change and creating a sustainable built environment. By working together, we can create a built environment that is resilient to the impacts of climate change and helps to reduce emissions, leading us towards a net-zero future.