“Building Decarbonisation” and “Net Zero 2050” are on everyone’s lips in the ongoing sustainability dialogue and are shaping the mid- and long-term strategies and investments of governments as well as the private sector.
At the same time, these terms are not fully understood by many key stakeholders, who are confused by the rapidly changing sustainability jargon and goals. What are the differences and inter-relationships among such terms as Net Zero 2050, NZEB, COP26, COP 27, the Paris Accord, Kigali Agreement, Green Building Codes and the various versions of ASHRAE 90.1?
How do we make sense of them, so we can define our priorities accordingly? How can each of us contribute to this worthy endeavour in the spheres of our expertise and responsibilities?
Building Decarbonisation explained
Net Zero 2050 is a key milestone agreed to in Glasgow at COP26, the yearly meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP), as conceived in the Ambition Mechanism of the Paris Accord. Net Zero 2050 is the pledge to reduce the global Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGEs) to pre-industrial levels by 2060.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the building sector produces 38% of the global GHGEs. This compares to 32% for industry and 23% for transport, with the remaining six per cent for other activities. Building GHGEs are caused by two types of carbon – operational and embodied.
Operational Carbon (OC) constitutes the emissions released through the lifetime operation of such building systems as lighting, power, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, elevators, escalators, office equipment, home appliances and other powered loads. In 2020, Building OC is estimated at 28% of global GHGEs.
OC reduction strategies are well defined, time tested, straightforward and can consist of one or more of the following options:
- Energy efficiency increases:
- Building envelope adaptation and use of better thermal insulation.
- Selection and installation of equipment with the highest efficiency available for the region.
- Switching from fuel-fired technology to highly efficient electric options.
- Renewable Energy:
- Installing renewable energy inherent to the building and selecting renewable source utilities, when available.
- Smart Controls:
- Reduction of energy waste in the building.
- Shifting of building energy loads for grid-wise energy optimisation.
The above strategies are in preparation for 2050, when plans call for 100% of the power grids to be fed from renewable energy sources. And OC reduction strategies are the same for new and existing building upgrades alike.
Embodied Carbon (EC) constitutes the emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure, including:
- Construction material extraction, transport to manufacturing locations, manufacturing, transport to the job site and the construction practices used to erect buildings.
- Emissions used in maintaining the building and, eventually, demolishing it, along with disposal of the waste, including recycling.
EC is a relatively new concept and is still evolving. Current efforts are focused on developing common global definitions, measurements and certification programmes.
EC reduction strategies often consist of the following general recommendations:
- Build less and reuse more, by extending the life of existing buildings and materials.
- Build lighter and smarter with less of a given material (or floor area) to do the same work.
- Substitute low-carbon materials for high-carbon ones.
- Adopt life cycle assessment (LCA) programmes to quantify and balance between the operational and embodied carbon.
Regional opportunities and obstacles to launch
The various governments in the region have adopted a mix of Net 2050 and Net 2060 strategies, all of which include green building regulations, retrofit programmes and some form of financing mechanism adopted at governmental or municipal levels.
Building decarbonisation, together with a transition to renewable energy, represents the major challenges and opportunities in the region on the path to 2050. After all, the energy consumed by the existing building stock is estimated at between 70-80% of the national energy level, compared to a world average of 55%. It is also worth noting that OC reduction must primarily tackle the heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) electric loads, representing 60-80% of building energies in the GCC region. Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) make a critical contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Compliance with MEPS is an arduous job, as there are a multitude of regulations varying from country to country – and even at the city level, at times, including different labels and costly compliance requirements for every jurisdiction for the same products. Regulators are becoming aware that this complicated compliance path falls short in delivering energy efficiency compliance. It is a known fact – and a frustration for many – that units in the market often fail market surveillance.
Many ESCO companies tasked with the biggest challenge – retrofitting the existing building assets – promote energy savings through multi-year agreements. Often, the contracts sold are based on a quick estimate based on building footprint and utility bills. This results in half-solutions, missing years of possible energy savings. Contractual conflicts often follow, with a loss of trust between ESCOs and clients, through which everyone loses, and the retrofit process is slowed down, if not halted altogether.
Owners and operators often run their buildings at the highest possible energy consumption without realising it. Their drive is to sublet the facilities’ maintenance to the lowest bidder with little concern for their building asset value degradation, and the significantly higher than necessary building energy consumption.
Financial institutions are waiting for the market to mature and function properly prior to providing green finance in what can become a vicious circle.
Way forward: Courage and collaboration
As COP goals highlight, collaboration among nations and stakeholders is a must to reach Net Zero 2050. EC and OC stakeholders must get together and agree on collaboration and a path of environmental stewardship.
Market leaders in their fields carry the responsibility to elevate the dialogue and actions of environmental stewardship. Courage is needed to stop promoting low-efficiency products and solutions and, instead, to introduce incentive schemes that encourage environmentally responsible results. Technical and project staff will benefit from ongoing training on the latest EC and OC methods and technologies.
ESCOs and manufacturers promoting energy-efficient solutions and products are advised to adopt proven and time-tested third-party certification programmes as an assurance of performance. This is healthy for the industry and will gain the trust and confidence of the owners and encourage financial institutions to provide green financing.
A healthy and truly environmental collaboration by the industry stakeholders will encourage regulators to embrace harmonised regulations with certification and market surveillance mechanisms. End users would end up with a competitive and wide choice of high-efficiency products and solutions with no low-efficiency options allowed to spoil the market and the environment.
Our choice is clear: We can choose self-motivated collaboration today as the way forward or wait for governments to lift electrical subsidies and enforce penalties to accelerate building decarbonisation. The first option puts us in control of our own destiny and makes environmental as well as economic sense.