Getting to the bottom of the green buildings conundrum

Companies setting science based targets in the building sector face formidable challenges due to the long value chain. Mike Scott reports on a WBCSD initiative to come up with a systems-level approach to cutting whole-of-life CO2 emissions.

With the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015, governments committed themselves to limiting average temperature rises to well below 2C.
Many companies embraced the deal as a clear signal that the transition to a low-carbon economy was accelerating and that the private sector would play a key role.

The contribution that companies can make is set out by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which encourages corporations to set targets in line with the level of decarbonisation required to keep global temperature increases below 2C. Following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5C report last November, the SBTi recently published new guidance encouraging companies to commit to a more ambitious 1.5C pathway.

More than 500 of the world’s biggest companies have signed up to the initiative, including almost 100 from the building and construction sector. The Global Alliance for Building and Construction says that “buildings, construction and operations accounted for 36% of global final energy use and nearly 40% of energy‐related CO2 emissions in 2017”, so the sector will be vital in helping companies to meet their SBTs.

“What do we expect from the sector?” asks Cynthia Cummis, director of private sector climate mitigation at the World Resources Institute and a member of the SBTi’s steering committee. “We expect to see improved energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energy and new business models.”

But addressing emissions from building and construction is complicated because the industry remains highly fragmented, the value chain is long and complex, and stakeholders span investors, architects, construction companies, property developers and tenants.

Further complicating the issue is that construction only produces 10-25% of a building’s emissions, with the vast majority coming during the use phase. As a result, says Cummis, “we are looking at various opportunities for collaboration across the value chain. Without collaboration, it’s hard for the tenant to have any influence.”

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