HomeSpotlightMultiple challenges ahead to make buildings net zero

Multiple challenges ahead to make buildings net zero

According to UN report, global direct and indirect GHG emissions in 2019 from buildings and emissions from cement and steel use for building construction and renovation were 12 GtCO2-eq. Emissions from these sources include both indirect emissions from offsite generation of electricity and heat, direct emissions produced onsite and emissions from cement and steel used for building construction and renovation. In 2019, global direct and indirect emissions from non-residential buildings increased by about 55% and those from residential buildings increased by about 50% compared to 1990. It should be noted that in case of residential buildings, increase in emissions was mainly driven by the increase of the floor area per capita, population growth and the increased use of emission-intensive electricity and heat while efficiency improvements have partly decreased emissions – a fact highly relevant for India.

Emissions from buildings will keep increasing in India due to floor area increase (which is bound to happen due to increasing per capita income and emergence of work from home concept), population growth and increased use of appliances and cooling equipment. This makes the task of controlling emissions that much difficult and switching over to renewable sources of energy from fossil fuel based energy can help in containing emissions only to a certain extent and cannot be a panacea for all the emission ills. Emissions can be controlled by using both sufficiency and efficiency measures.

Global investment in the decarbonisation of buildings was estimated at USD164 billion in 2020 which is not enough by far to close the investment gap. Density, compacity, bioclimatic design to optimise the use of nature-based solutions, multi-functionality of space through shared space and to allow for adjusting the size of buildings to the evolving needs of households,  circular use of materials and repurposing unused existing buildings to avoid using virgin materials,  optimisation of the use of buildings through lifestyle changes, use of the thermal mass of buildings to reduce thermal needs, moving from ownership to usership of appliances are among the sufficiency interventions which have to be implemented at the local level.

Last week a well-known developer announced India’s first net zero residential project in Bengaluru which became a headline in newspapers which shows that we are just making a beginning on the road to become net zero nation. Yes, technology to develop net zero buildings is not freely available and the construction of high-performance buildings is expected to become a business-as-usual technology only by 2050.

India has already framed building energy code but this is a very small step on the path of emission reduction. Building energy codes have proven to be effective if compulsory and combined with other regulatory instruments such as minimum energy performance standard for appliances and equipment, if the performance level is set at the level of the best available technologies in the market. Market-based instruments such as carbon taxes with recycling of the revenues and personal or building carbon allowances could also contribute to fostering the decarbonisation of the building sector. The most advanced building energy codes include requirements on each of the three pillars of the SER framework in the use and construction phase of buildings.

Global warming will impact cooling and heating needs but also the performance, durability and safety of buildings, especially historical and coastal ones, through changes in temperature, humidity, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and chloride, and sea level rise. Adaptation measures to cope with climate change may increase the demand for energy and materials leading to an increase in GHG emissions if not mitigated. Sufficiency measures which anticipate climate change, and include natural ventilation, white walls, and nature-based solutions (e.g., green roofs) will decrease the demand for cooling. Shared cooled spaces with highly efficient cooling solutions are among the  mitigation strategies suggested by the experts which can limit the effect of the expected heatwaves on people’s health.

It should be noted that mitigation actions in the building sector bring health gains through improved indoor air quality and thermal comfort, and have positive significant macro- and micro-economic effects, such as increased productivity of labour, job creation, reduced poverty, especially energy poverty, and improved energy security.

The 2020-2030 decade is critical for accelerating the learning of know-how, building the technical and institutional capacity, setting the appropriate governance structures, ensuring the flow of finance, and in developing the skills needed to fully capture the mitigation potential of buildings. Unfortunately, first two years of this decade were wasted fighting the pandemic and we have an uphill task of making good for the lost time and resources.

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