The United National Environment Programme (UNEP) recently hosted a conference on climate change to determine the biggest carbon offenders and the steps needed to reach net zero emissions on a global scale. The verdict was unambiguous—the urban built environment, responsible for approximately 70% of global energy consumption and carbon emissions, is the main culprit.
Today, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. It’s predicted that cities will absorb an additional 1.35 billion people by 2030, accounting for nearly all of the projected global growth in that timeframe.
Across the planet, there is approximately 1.6 trillion square feet of built space (75% residential and 25% commercial.) It’s expected that an additional 861 billion square feet of space will be newly constructed or retrofitted by 2030. The bulk of this growth will occur in China (38% of total growth estimates) and U.S. & Canada (15%), so the responsibility sits squarely on these nations’ shoulders to develop environmentally appropriate solutions.
The targets are clear: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to maintain life as we know it, “global CO2 emissions must peak by about 2020, with industry and electric power sector CO2 emissions reaching zero by about 2070, and global GHG emissions reaching zero by the end of the century.”
Given that a significant portion of the total built environment is expected to be built or rebuilt over the next two decades, those of us in the building sector have a singularly unique opportunity to develop and implement solutions that will address our urgent environmental needs. It has become our imperative to create structures that are resource efficient, adaptable to our changing climate, and meet our emissions targets.
Some progress has been made in countries across the globe. In the U.S., legislation requires that all federal buildings (new and retrofit) are zero carbon by 2030. Cities across the U.S. and Canada are implementing 50% reduction targets for energy, water, and transportation emissions. The EU is urging member states to reach net zero energy by 2020. China is mandating a 65% energy efficiency improvement in buildings in certain climate zones (granted, the comparison is to 1980 performance results.)
The building sector has never had as much opportunity as we do today to directly—and substantially—shape the future. To meet our energy, water, and emissions targets, it will take an overhaul of our existing system, with all hands on deck from building professionals, code officials, city planners, regulators, facility managers, and even homeowners.
If we are successful in our attempts to mainstream green building and keep carbon emissions levels under 1 trillion tons (thereby maintaining an average temperature increase threshold of 2 degrees Celsius), we might just have a fighting chance. If not—if emissions and temperatures exceed these levels, experts predict that our climate system will spin out of control. Translation: game over for humans and many other species.
It’s sobering and exciting to think that the future is so decisively in our hands—the same hands that design, build, rate, test, assess, and appraise our built environment. It’s our privilege to be the change that is needed in the world. It’s our responsibility to care enough to do what is right.
It can be challenging—painful at times—to carry the yoke of transformation. Its burden is the truth that runs deeper than any experience. It underlies all that we see, all that we feel. It’s an order of truth that separates the profound from the profane, reality from perception. And serving that truth requires commitment and courage, and sometimes sacrifice. But when we stare it in the face, we know that we have no other choice but to serve it.
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