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An integrated approach to a sustainable built environment: the co-benefits for climate action

Earlier this year, the World Green Building Council global network launched our flagship Beyond Buildings report. This calls for an integrated approach to sustainability in the built environment – considering both buildings and infrastructure – which is essential for climate action and sustainable development. In this new blog series, we delve into the key findings behind the report and explore additional co-benefits for taking a broader approach to advancing sustainability in the built environment.

Authors: Catriona Brady, Director of Strategy and Development & Sara Kawamura, Project Officer, Better Places for People, WorldGBC and Richard Palmer, Director of Global Sustainability, Dar & Integral Group 

Climate change has been amplifying in recent decades, both in terms of physical impacts and political, business and societal momentum. The unchecked increase of greenhouse gas emissions is increasing the magnitude and frequency of natural disasters, including floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires. As scientific reports continue to confirm the anthropogenic contributions which are fuelling the extreme weather events of recent years, it is clear that we are in a planetary crisis, where our natural systems are being stressed by human activity.

The impact of the built environment 

The built environment (capturing buildings and infrastructure) is responsible for 75% of global greenhouse emissions, with the building sector on its own accounting for 37%. Alarmingly, the trajectory of these emissions is that they are expected to grow:

  • Within the next 40 years, 230 billion square metres of new buildings will be constructed, and 75% of the infrastructure required by 2050 still needs to be built.
  • Around 50% of emissions from new buildings will be from embodied sources, and half from operational sources between 2020 and 2050.

As outlined in WorldGBC’s flagship ‘Beyond Buildings’ report, the role of the built environment in tackling our climate crisis is absolutely fundamental to sustainability action. Through this cutting edge report, the WorldGBC network champions the necessity of tackling sustainability for the entire built environment across all sectors – from buildings to transport, energy generation to utilities, social infrastructure to waste management, and everything in between. Buildings cannot decarbonise without the infrastructure that exists within and between them, the purpose of much of our infrastructure is to support how people live within our buildings and cities. This interrelationship is critical to encouraging systems thinking towards sustainable development.

Buildings and infrastructure are independent in many ways, from interdependence in use, to shared construction and material supply chains. Despite areas of similarity, the development, construction, ownership and operation of building and infrastructure are often fully separated and consequently, so are their sustainability ambitions. Working in silo means that there is a risk of valuable opportunities being missed when addressing climate targets and sustainability goals. These two critical sectors for climate action can’t decarbonise on their own.

Through the ‘Beyond Buildings’ report, WorldGBC advocates for a sustainable built environment – including both buildings and infrastructure – that is resilient, in line with our climate goals, and that meets the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. To implement this, the report calls for a more closely aligned approach to sustainable buildings and infrastructure in pursuit of our shared climate and sustainability ambitions.

In addition to the work published in Beyond Buildings, there are additional co-benefits for taking an aligned and integrated approach to sustainability in the built environment and considering buildings and infrastructure as part of one, cohesive system for sustainability action. The co-benefits are presented across three thematic focus areas of WorldGBC’s strategy: Climate Action, Health, Wellbeing & Social Value, and Resources & Circularity, and provide supplementary evidence to the main report on the opportunity of collaborating for united action on both buildings and infrastructure.

In this thought leadership piece, we present four additional benefits that relate to Climate Action:

Why an integrated approach to buildings and infrastructure will tackle challenges for climate action, and provide co-benefits for people and planet

  1. Decarbonisation of energy supply

The decarbonisation of the built environment cannot be achieved without an integrated approach to buildings and infrastructure. The drive towards net zero in the buildings sector cannot rely on the efficiency of design alone but must include the supply and distribution of renewable energy to these assets. Buildings must incentivise the energy transition to renewable energy in order to effectively transition the whole built environment toward net zero. Equally within the infrastructure sector, the incentives to shift transport and mobility systems away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy should be a priority for advocacy. This emphasises the intersection of buildings and infrastructure, where the charging infrastructure provided in buildings will be an enabler for faster transformation of the global vehicle fleet from internal combustion to electricity.

  1. Decarbonisation of transportation systems

Decarbonisation of transport systems and networks is essential to a new emissions trajectory in the built environment. While some parts of the transport network may change quickly – rail, bus and supporting active mobility – other parts are proving more difficult to transition. The decarbonisation of road transportation remains a huge challenge for the global transit network. While some decarbonisation will be achieved through increased modal diversity onto rail, transitioning the existing global vehicle fleet away from internal combustion engines is a substantial task. The successful decarbonisation of the road networks globally will need to include a strong role from the buildings sector to enable and support the transition with charging infrastructure and support for modal diversity.

  1. Reducing Embodied Emissions

There is a huge reliance for embodied emissions reduction on innovation within the common supply chain that supports both buildings and infrastructure – concrete, steel, aluminium, glass and other raw materials. The alignment in supply chains across buildings and infrastructure supports a case for aligned approaches to embodied emissions. Consistency in assessment methodology and aligned advocacy with authorities, investors and the supply chain is required to accelerate the market innovation for low-carbon durable materials for the future of the built environment.

Public procurement offers massive opportunities to enhance sustainability throughout a materials or construction supply chain. A more sustainable public procurement process could result in global supply chain improvement that would benefit the environment: through circular economy, by promoting eradication of harmful chemicals and recycling; society, by increasing social value and equity; and the economy, by innovations that support efficiency.

  1. Enhancing adaptation and resilience

The resilience of built environment systems is highly reliant on both buildings and infrastructure. Important future considerations include the intersection of resilience and decarbonisation for the energy and transportation networks that support the built environment and the reflection of these best practice principles in the certification frameworks for buildings and infrastructure – including physical assets resilient to climate impacts, community protection structures to limit damage from natural disasters, and system resilience from smart grids and off-grid power generation. The transition to capacity for energy networks to balance reliability and decarbonisation demands an integrated approach to buildings and infrastructure.

In the aftermath of COP26, it is clear that this is the decade that counts if we want to stay below 1.5 degrees celsius of global climate warming. The progress made in recent history is encouraging – just two years ago, when the UK took on the COP26 mantle, only 30% of the world was covered by net zero targets. This figure is now at around 90%, with approximately 80% of global emissions considered within updated national targets.

However, we know there is so much more to do. At COP26, nearly 200 countries agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact which focused on keeping the goal of 1.5C warming trajectory alive and to finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement. This also included revisiting and strengthening current emission targets for 2030, and highlighted resilient infrastructure and buildings to avoid loss of homes and lives while cutting emissions.

The intersection of buildings and infrastructure is  key for meeting these global targets. Within Beyond Buildings, the WorldGBC calls for further collaboration and work, and scoping on a universal framework of principles, for both buildings and infrastructure, that covers built environment projects right across the planet. Through this and further work, our network looks to inspire both public and investor advocacy, and enables deep and widespread collaboration.

Find out more in the full report, and stay tuned for more of the co-benefits of an integrated approach to sustainability in the built environment for health, wellbeing and social value in our next thought leadership piece.

About Dar Group

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