The race to net-zero emissions is on. To prevent the catastrophic changes that will occur if global temperatures increase above 1.5 degrees, we must make significant changes to reduce our carbon emissions. Buildings and construction account for almost 40% of all carbon emissions globally. Decarbonising our buildings must play a large part of the climate change solution.
The green building movement established itself formally in the 1990’s, after the US Green Building Council was founded. But how successfully have green buildings penetrated the market and has this had a knock-on effect on carbon emissions?
At a glance, the green building market appears to be growing at a promising rate. Energy efficiency investment in buildings increased globally by 11% in 2021, while green building certification increased 13.9% compared to 2020. This is an encouraging sign that developers are increasingly choosing investment in green buildings and making resource efficient choices. Simultaneously, the global green building materials market reached a value of $280.5 billion in 2021, again highlighting an increased demand within the sector. With the green building market predicted to grow at a 14.3% compound annual growth rate by 2027 (based on certifications provided by third-party organisations or national bodies and standards), green buildings have the potential to become a dominant force in our cityscapes.
Green buildings are also beginning to penetrate our national policies and building codes. Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) form part of the Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions and must be updated every five years. In 2015, 90 countries included actions for addressing buildings-related emissions and improving energy efficiency. This increased to 136 countries by 2020. In 2015, 62 countries had adopted building energy codes. This jumped to 80 by 2020. The progress made on a policy level is critical as including energy efficiency in legislation catalyses a broader adoption of green building practices.
Despite this, green buildings are perhaps still struggling to make an impact on the wider construction market. Whilst the growth in green buildings is not to be dismissed, it accounts for just a small proportion of the total building sector. For every $1 spent on energy efficiency globally, $37 is spent on conventional construction approaches. The largest green building market globally is China, which is valued at $178.1 million and represents an increase of 10.4% compared to 2020. Whilst this is an impressive sum, it is only a fraction compared to the wider building market. In 2019, the total output value of China’s building and construction industry was $3.9 trillion. Moreover, in China only 2% of new builds were certified by international certification systems in 2020. This trend isn’t limited to China but represents the construction market globally. There is growing interest in green buildings but it is still lagging behind the levels we need for the successful market penetration on a large and permanent scale.
What is perhaps most important to assess is whether green buildings have actually had an impact on global carbon emissions reductions. The global share of energy-related CO2 emissions from buildings and construction was 37% in 2020, compared to 38% in 2019. This decrease can be primarily attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a drop in building construction and demand for construction materials. Outside from 2020 being an anomaly, direct and indirect emissions from buildings have increased on average by 1% per year since 2010. Moreover, while electricity made up one-third of building energy use in 2020, indicating that the sector is moving away from fossil fuels and towards lower carbon energy sources, fossil fuel use has still increased at a marginal annual average growth rate of 0.7% since 2010.
So where does this leave us in regards to net-zero?
The building sector is currently not on track to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The sector energy’s demand needs to drop nearly five times more quickly over the next ten years than current rates to be in line with a carbon neutral 2050. Investment in the green building sector will also need to triple by 2030 to reach net zero targets. To achieve the necessary carbon reductions we need, we must do everything we can to decarbonise our infrastructure and work towards making every building green.
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