The world is facing many challenges, and global warming, amongst others, is undoubtedly our greatest. It poses an existential threat to life on Earth through the potential of bringing an irreversible change in climatic conditions. Over the last decade, leaders worldwide, governments and business communities have been discussing the effects of climate change and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause it.
Unfortunately, unchecked climate change, due to our growing economic demand, has adversely impacted ecosystems and human health. On December 2015, world leaders gathered at the COP21 summit in Paris to adapt and arrest further degradation. They pledged to reduce emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C this century. However, since then, much to the chagrin of experts, recent data shows that we will probably breach this limit by the 2030s.
The topic is broad and complex. Reducing global emissions from generating electricity, deforestation and transportation is tricky – more so, owing to the far-reaching socio-political and economic consequences. Modern civilisation is hooked on fossil fuel-generated electricity, and the challenges of switching to renewables are plenty.
Moreover, much electricity consumption is due to energising the built environment. According to Architecture2030, buildings are responsible for 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. And Forbes attributes roughly 70% to building operations and 30% to new construction activities. Therefore, decarbonising buildings has become central to any strategy that strives to limit carbon emissions. We must persist and accelerate efforts to implement energy- efficient upgrades and look to on-site renewables.
After the pandemic, an unprecedented digital technology innovation surge changed the world. However, unlike global warming, it has impacted our lives positively. We are in a nascent stage of the digital era. Every basic need – from how we make purchases to how we work – is just a touch away. Technologies like Cloud computing, Blockchain, IoT and Digital Twins are creating opportunities to tackle complex problems like global warming. The power, scale, dynamics and economics Cloud offers, can make it a key enabler to put decarbonisation goals back on track. Perhaps going digital is the prescription to uplift the outlook on reducing carbon emissions from the built environment.
ADOPTING BLOCKCHAIN TO TRACK GHG EMISSIONS
Blockchain was introduced as a secure record-keeping technology to track cryptocurrency transactions. It is a safe, distributed, immutable and transparent peer-to-peer network. Its intrinsic value is to bring accountability and connectivity among the various players in a value chain. It can track the supply of products from manufacturing to delivery and help prevent inefficiencies. For example, blockchain platforms can facilitate smart contracts between organisations in the building construction industry. Smart contracts will allow users to calculate, track and report the carbon footprint of products across manufacturers and distributors in the supply chain. The verified records of sustainable products procured through environmentally friendly practices come in handy to companies when reporting net-zero initiatives.
Building owners can also benefit by earning points for green building certifications and fetching above-market prices for their properties. According to research published by McKinsey, 90% of the environmental impact and 80% of GHG emissions associated with a product are embedded in its supply chain. As per the GHG protocol for sustainability, such emissions are measured under Scope 3 and are essential to track for companies pledged to net-zero emissions. The transparent nature of Blockchain makes it possible for companies to confidently report ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) activities and publicly disclose achieving decarbonisation milestones.
DRIVING EFFICIENCY THROUGH DIGITAL TWINS
A Digital Twin is a virtual replica of a product or process that exchanges data with its physical version. Over the last decade, this technology has enhanced processes and improved product designs across the aerospace, automotive and manufacturing industries. Digital Twins have caught up to the HVAC industry and will soon be a game changer for designing buildings. Architects and engineers have been designing energy-efficient buildings through energy modeling to call them green. However, green buildings, like conventional ones, have a poor track record for performing as predicted. This disconnect is because green building frameworks for energy modelling focus on the energy efficient design of a building but not its actual energy consumption.
Using a static type of Digital Twin, engineers can better predict a building’s performance by simulating its environment and running ‘what-if’ scenarios early in creating a design. A dynamic type of Digital Twin goes further. It connects to various native systems of a building, collects operational data, correlates information with design parameters, helps operators fine-tune the performance gaps and even predicts the behaviour of assets.
Digital Twins can enhance energy modelling and energy management of buildings. The technology offers a solution to connect an efficient design to the actual performance of a building and reimagine net-zero infrastructure.
IoT AND SMART INFRASTRUCTURE
The Internet of Things (IoT) is vast. It is a mix of web-enabled smart devices and cloud-powered software platforms. IoT puts the smarts in conventional building systems. The technology leverages the benefits of cloud computing to deliver fascinating results on a large scale. An array of network-enabled sensors or meters push essential data from buildings to a cloud server. A platform application on the cloud server then processes this data, executes mathematical algorithms at the back-end and shares valuable insights with its user.
IoT platforms can also centralise data from siloed systems in buildings and give users a holistic view of building operations. Typically, users are building operators or owners who can remotely access the platform’s features through any Internet browser and generate reports. To illustrate, let us suppose that an IoT platform deployed in a commercial building gathers data from smart thermostats, people counting software and a space management application. The platform can learn and recognise occupancy patterns and use this data to inform the smart thermostats to adjust their parameters to save energy. In comparison, standalone thermostats may waste about 20-30% of the cooling energy in the building.
Such data-driven decisions enable operators and owners to realise IoT technology’s business value by reducing utility bills and enabling operational efficiency through energy management and smart maintenance. The arrival of commercial 5G and prospects of Artificial intelligence have boosted the potential to reduce GHG emissions across verticals to be on track with net-zero targets. The UAE’s beautiful landscape is home to dazzling infrastructure, and the country is widely considered a game-changer in many global developments. However, progress in developing the urban infrastructure has spiked the UAE’s per capita energy and water consumption to be among the highest in the world. Therefore, the country’s leadership seeks to pursue green economic growth.
Leading by example, the UAE has pledged to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 and will host COP28 in November 2023. The first of a kind in the Middle East on both counts. The message is clear – an existential crisis means we are in this together. The seeming inevitability of changing climates is making it hard to predict what the future will look like. Unfortunately, digital transformation isn’t a magic bullet and comes with connectivity, data privacy and cyber security challenges. So how do we do it? The good news is that digital technologies are creating some amazing opportunities for sustainable and smart infrastructure. The effects are seen rippling throughout social media, as more and more companies take advantage of the benefits. Yes, it will take some years to realise results, but by embracing these technologies, we can unravel the unthinkable and see the evolution of true sustainable development.
The writer works in the digital space of the building construction and O&M industry in Dubai and can be reached at email@example.com