The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP26, is scheduled to take place in Glasgow in just under three months. It’s the third meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement, which set in motion efforts to limit rises in global temperature to 1.5 °C
At COP26, the governments present are expected to commit to an enhanced ambition to reduce carbon emissions, and we all know that the built environment sector is fundamental to much of this. Buildings have a critical role to play in mitigating climate change, responsible for 39% of energy related carbon emissions, as well as playing a central role in developing resilience against climatic extremes.
On a global level, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) is at the forefront of the built environment sector’s campaign to reduce carbon. Their recently published report ‘Advancing Net Zero Status Report 2021’ showcases the commitments that have been made under their ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment’. It lists 141 signatories to the commitment, comprising of 107 businesses, 28 cities and 6 regions. The commitment focuses on how these organisations are reducing carbon in the buildings that are under their direct control, and also introducing the idea of expanding this to embodied carbon and a wider whole life carbon impacts. The Advancing Net Zero initiative is part of WGBC’s global advocacy efforts leading up to COP26 and part of the sector’s efforts under the UN’s Race to Zero.
These commitments to net zero are essential to achieving the reductions we need. However, we need to be careful that commitments are followed through by action.
Recent research by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) and Oxford Net Zero shows that less than 50% of companies with net zero commitments have a published plan on how to achieve the targets. This is particularly problematic because addressing net zero becomes a “future problem”, something that can be put aside for an unspecified date in the future. This means that the chances of realising net zero ambitions will be diminished, and the exercise will become more costly and challenging for those involved.
So as we approach COP26, yes, make commitments, but also embark on a programme of actions to reduce carbon in buildings. We need COP26 to be about the progress that has already been made, not just a statement of desire to reduce carbon.
Where to start?
Reaching net zero emissions in the built environment needs careful analysis. All owners and operators of buildings will need to undertake a carbon footprint calculation, which identifies the split between operational emissions and the emissions generated by their supply chains. For some, the supply chain carbon footprint will be higher than the operational emissions. But that doesn’t mean operational emissions (industry jargon: scope 1 and scope 2) should be ignored. If every company focuses on what they control first, they will likely be addressing someone else’s supply chain emissions.
So what does your own operational carbon footprint look like and how can you go about reducing it? Firstly, you will need to evaluate current building stock and understand where your biggest emissions impact is. Then you need to evaluate the steps you need to take to achieve net zero in these buildings. This should start with the measures needed to reduce energy demand to improve their efficiency, then consider utilising renewable energy systems and finally moving towards carbon offsetting as a last resort.
Whilst this sounds complicated, this is exactly what EDGE has been created to do. The EDGE App is freely available in the public domain and designed to demystify how to get a building or a portfolio of buildings to net zero. The App will even do initial calculations for free, and has a big advantage in that it not only shows what you need to do to reduce your carbon footprint, it also tells you how much this is going to cost. This then allows you to factor finance into your retrofit (or development) strategy, and perhaps crucially work with green finance initiatives and investors to reduce carbon and ensure a good return on investment, both in terms of carbon and financial return.
The other important facet of EDGE is the link to certification, to independently verify the sustainability performance of a building, which is again critical for the link to the financing of ‘green’ retrofit. We should also not forget that most buildings will not be able to immediately reach ‘net zero’, which is why EDGE certification works on the basis of making progressive improvements to a building and a portfolio. This starts with initial certification for a 20% improvement over local baseline, moving to EDGE Advanced at a 40% improvement and finally up to certified net zero carbon.
As certification is renewed every few years, it will also keep a check on the operational consumption aspects of net zero, and ensure that there is transparency and honesty in the process.
Let’s Make it Happen
Committing to net zero emissions means committing to changing your business, and we don’t pretend that this can be done overnight. However as we look forward to COP26, there is no doubt that reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is the number one priority. It’s about actions, not just words. Companies must make tangible plans that clearly and transparently show the pathway forward to net zero emissions. It will be an iterative process, but it needs to start today – and we’re here to help!
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