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How can the built environment undergo a switch to an energy-efficient future?

12 September 2023

During #WGBW23 from 11–15 September 2023, our network is joining us in a unified call to the global building and construction sector to accelerate the transition to secure an energy efficient, regenerative and just future for all.

In the first of our thought leadership series this World Green Building Week, we’re focusing on energy, and exploring how the built environment needs to make the transition to energy efficiency now if we’re going to secure a better future for all.

What is the energy transition?

The energy transition is about more than switching to renewable energy. We’re talking about a complete systemic change – accelerating the uptake of built environments that are all-electric, reducing energy demand, storing and sharing clean energy, and producing more energy than they use. It’s investing in clean technologies and driving economies of scale. And it’s deep retrofitting existing buildings to be exceptionally energy efficient.

Why is it important that we don’t demand more than our planet can supply?  

There is no question that the transition required to regenerate and repair our planet will see systemic transformation across all sectors. As the largest contributing sector to global energy-related carbon emissions (37% globally), the built environment is a key enabler of change in the transition to a decarbonised, sustainable and resilient society.   

As WorldGBC partner CBRE notes (author Sarah Spencer-Workman, Senior Global Director of Decarbonization, CBRE), there is no silver bullet solution or easy button, and if there were, we would have already met or exceeded the 1.5ºC milestone. The question is, how do we break the cycle and solve for a just energy transition in the built environment? 

Prioritising the cost of a just energy transition and abating associated carbon emissions within the built environment will shift decision-making when it comes to developing financial models for people, organisations, and communities. Bringing this to the same level as financials by inputting the cost of an energy transition into a financial model speaks to a breadth of leaders. 

WorldGBC Corporate Advisory Board member AkzoNobel notes that climate change mitigation is an integral part of their approach to sustainable business and plays an important role in their company strategy. Their ambition for renewable electricity is progressing well, with operations in Europe and North America having fully switched over. Their total share of renewable electricity use was 45% globally at the end of 2022. In total, 44 of their locations now use 100% renewable electricity, with 23 sites using solar panels as a supplementary source of energy. The innovation and development of their sustainable solutions plays a key role. AkzoNobel aim to offer their customers – and their customers in turn – sustainable solutions that enable them to reduce their own emissions and use products with a lower carbon footprint. The company provides detailed carbon footprint data for their products and solutions and collaborates with customers, suppliers, academia and other stakeholders to achieve their targets.

What are the benefits of the energy transition?

According to AD Ports Group, the transition to sustainable energy systems holds a multitude of benefits for both regional environments and inhabitants:

  1. Emission Reduction and Climate Mitigation: Sustainable energy adoption significantly reduces harmful emissions, fostering improved air quality and contributing to global climate mitigation efforts.
  2. Enhanced public health: By curbing air pollution, the transition promotes better public health, leading to fewer respiratory illnesses and associated health risks.
  3. Stimulating job creation: The shift towards sustainable energy sources creates a surge in employment opportunities within the renewable energy sector and energy-efficient infrastructure development, driving economic growth.
  4. Augmented resilience: Sustainable energy systems bolster resilience against environmental challenges, fortifying regions against the impacts of extreme weather events and other stressors.
  5. Elevated quality of life: Cleaner air and water, coupled with reduced noise pollution, result in an improved quality of life for regional residents, making for a more pleasant living experience.

Regional approaches

Of course every territory across the globe is unique, and with different regions, come different challenges. WorldGBC partner Daikin’s pursuit of energy transition is characterised by its strategic integration of innovative technologies. 

As the energy transition gathers momentum, the advantages of regional engagement are becoming increasingly evident. Inspired by Daikin’s advocacy, new industry standards for evaluating energy efficiency have emerged in various regions. Noteworthy examples include the strides made in ASEAN countries and Latin America, particularly in the cases of India and Brazil. 

In India, the introduction of energy efficiency assessments triggered a remarkable transformation. The market share of inverter air conditioners, previously negligible, skyrocketed to an impressive 55% by 2020. This shift not only alleviated energy demands but also had a substantial positive impact on carbon emissions.

How can the building and construction sector join the transition?

Opportunities exist everywhere and must be scaled up, leveraging local solutions, cross-sector working and political backing. Global construction and consultation firm Egis notes that in the midst of rapid urbanisation, flourishing international investment, and the allure of luxury developments, the Middle East’s construction sector stands at a pivotal juncture, poised to become a trailblazer in decarbonisation. By integrating cutting-edge sustainable technologies and design principles into their projects, construction firms in the region can not only meet the growing demand for opulent and eco-conscious living spaces but also significantly reduce their carbon footprint. 

With leading market value, the sector has the financial resources to invest in energy-efficient building materials, renewable energy integration, and smart urban planning, making the dream of sustainable, low-carbon cities a tangible reality. By leveraging these opportunities, the Middle East’s construction industry can redefine luxury as not just opulence but also environmental responsibility, setting a new global standard for sustainable urban development while reaping economic rewards and safeguarding the planet for future generations. Egis’s partnership with WorldGBC and engagement with the Advancing Net Zero Programme exemplify its strategic commitment to representing the Middle East and South Asia on global discussions platforms dedicated to achieving total sector decarbonisation.

WorldGBC Corporate Advisory Board member Signify notes that today, the world is facing what might be called a trilemma: the concurrent climate, energy, and economic crises. Economies are struggling with multiple impacts, businesses are dealing with quickly increasing costs and supply chain disruptions, and consumers are coping with inflation and skyrocketing energy bills. They add that if businesses and cities converted all of their conventional light points to LED or connected LED, global electricity savings could total as much as 1,132 TWh per year, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of 494 million households. The switch would save a total of €177 billion per year in electricity costs while taking more than 553 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the amount of carbon that 25 billion trees could sequester in a year. 

Leading decarbonisation platform for net zero, Envision Digital, add that the net-zero journey is propelled by three pivotal phases. First, harnessing cutting-edge technology, we can measure carbon footprints and energy patterns that weave into our urban landscapes. We can then use this data to optimise energy usage and reshape the trajectory of resource management. Finally, transformation thrives on integration, not isolation. Decarbonisation efforts can be accelerated by embracing fusion—linking elements from EV charging networks to intelligent micro-grids into cohesive systems.

Global engineering, management and development consultancy Mott MacDonald add that NHS England, which currently accounts for 40% of public sector carbon emissions, is on a mission to decarbonise its portfolio. However, decarbonising healthcare facilities is incredibly complex because they are typically the most diverse, highly regulated and energy intensive within the built environment. With their help, NHS England therefore created the NHS Net Zero Carbon Building Standard, which was published in February 2023. It gives designers the technical guidance needed to deliver sustainable, resilient, and energy efficient healthcare buildings throughout the NHS estate for the benefit of patients, staff and visitors. 

Intrinsic to the Standard is a methodology Mott MacDonald developed to calculate and monitor energy and carbon limits, with metrics that go beyond industry standards such as BREEAM. This methodology is underpinned by extensive benchmarking and parametric energy modelling of the existing portfolio. 

WorldGBC partner Johnson Controls explain the transition to cleaner energy sources is a crucial step towards building a sustainable future. By reducing dependence on fossil fuels and embracing renewable energy, we can create a healthier, more prosperous, and more sustainable future for ourselves and future generations. They add that the transition to cleaner energy sources can improve air quality and health, boost the regional economy, and protect the environment. The transition towards a more sustainable, equitable, and innovative future requires careful planning and implementation. Industry professionals can play a key role in this process by developing effective transition strategies and engaging stakeholders and partners. For example, sustainability principles may include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving natural resources, and promoting circular economy principles. At JCI these pillars are fundamental, and they focus on supporting their clients to meet their goals to create more sustainable, healthy and safe buildings, for example with intelligent and predictive measurement such as the OpenBlue platform.

WorldGBC partner Knauf Insulation tells us that in order to ensure a meaningful energy transition, we must get the sequence right, and that means first tackling the biggest carbon emission source — operational energy in buildings — by reducing demand through high performing building envelopes and using renewable energy. 

Research of the Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE) in partnership with Knauf Insulation found that energy demand for heating in buildings could be reduced by 44% if all EU residential buildings were effectively insulated, contributing to Europe’s 2050 climate-neutral ambitions and energy security (Russia supplied 45% of Europe’s gas in 2021).

As Knauf Insulation put it, ‘the transition to renewables offers exciting opportunities, but to ensure its success it is essential that we put energy efficiency first and ensure effective deep renovation combined with renewable energy sources are priorities.’

About World Green Building Week

This year’s World Green Building Week runs from 11–15 September 2023 and calls on the global building and construction sector to accelerate the transition to secure an energy efficient, regenerative and just future for all. Find out more.