Story at a glance:

  • Covestro shares a practical approach for transitioning the built environment to clean energy.
  • Building and construction is responsible for nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Methane matters, and builders can mitigate methane by knowing where their steel is coming from.

The transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy is evident everywhere. It is in the proliferation of solar panels on residential rooftops, electric vehicles on roadways, and wind turbines across the countryside.

Accelerating the transition requires work in so many areas. At COP26, the Glasgow Breakthroughs set ambitious targets for the deployment of clean technologies in the five key sectors of power, road transport, steel, hydrogen, and agriculture.

The one missing? Building and construction.

Surprising, since the sector, which is responsible for nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is a prime candidate for decarbonization.

Now that is changing. At COP27, France and the Kingdom of Morocco reaffirmed their co-leadership of the Buildings Breakthrough with the support of the Global Alliance for Building and Construction and the United Kingdom and Germany expressing their support. They also issued a call to other countries to join. The Buildings Breakthrough is expected to lay out a revolutionary and evolutionary pathway for achieving zero or near zero emissions—something that is critical if we are to meet the goals set forth by the Paris Agreement.

That builds on news presented at a recent event co-hosted by Covestro and Pittsburgh-based Green Building Alliance that brought together international, national, and regional clean energy policymakers and practitioners to examine solutions and strategies for decarbonizing the built environment.

As one international expert said, “Buildings stand out as a major challenge but also a great opportunity for improvement due to the massive role they play as end users of energy. The reality is that renewable energy technologies alone cannot meet the enormous energy requirements of buildings. Solutions must be sought elsewhere. The world is not on track to meet its environmental goals. We cannot pick and choose the solutions. We need them all and we need them now.”

We previously shared with gb&d the first of two articles detailing the important information that emerged from the all-day event hosted by Covestro and the Green Building Alliance. That first article focused primarily on policy issues like the new Buildings Breakthrough. In this piece we explore some of the more practical approaches presented that architects, builders, and developers may find useful in their own work.

Where Does Methane Fit In?

In the discussions about greenhouse gas emissions, methane traditionally has taken a back seat to carbon dioxide. It shouldn’t.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25% of today’s global warming is driven by methane from human actions. Atmospheric concentration of methane is increasing faster now than at any time since the 1980s.

One source of methane is coal. Another more surprising source is the gas used for stovetop cooking.

Builders can assist in methane mitigation by being cognizant of where the steel they use is coming from. If the source relies primarily on coal for production, they may consider alternative supply chains. They may also consider other options for cooking. Induction cooking is being held up as an example. This 1970s energy-efficient technology has evolved to the point where it has become a more effective cooking technique while offering consumers a way to transition away from fossil fuels without having to sacrifice convenience.

Codes are King, but the Kingdom is Diverse

Building and energy codes play a fundamental role in achieving decarbonization of buildings. They serve as the basis for impacting a broad segment of buildings, particularly relative to new construction.

This is critical since in the coming decades an estimated 80% of the population growth will be in places that today lack mandatory energy codes. Setting up those communities and buildings for success is critical.

At the same time, many of those communities are already dealing with the impacts of climate change. While codes can help address extreme heat, hurricanes, and wildfires, the necessary infrastructure must be in place to actually make codes useful. Infrastructure that includes regulatory frameworks and education systems that train trades, builders, and code officials.

Another challenge with codes is consistency.

“Everyone is on a different code schedule, a different code journey, even a different code decade,” explains Chris Cieslak, who oversees GBA’s 2030 District. “Buildings are built at different times of their lifespan, and they have to comply with different codes, which means they’re all over the place and their progress is uneven.”

It cannot be a one-size fits all approach. Codes that work in one part of the world may not work in a place with a different climate or weather systems.

Policies that put minimum codes in place are an important first step to ensuring the solutions for advancing to near zero energy are available to all people across the world in the rural areas, the global south, and in low-income urban areas. This means the codes apply whether you’re building affordable housing or a corporate office building, and every member of society has the same level of protection and access to energy efficiency no matter where they live or work.

Powering the Future: The Electrification of Everything

built environment to clean energy covestro

The transition away from fossil-based electrification is becoming more prominent, including in electric vehicle charging infrastructure within the built environment. Image courtesy of Covestro

For some time now we’ve seen vehicles, natural gas heating and cooling systems, and other technologies traditionally reliant on combustion be replaced by versions that are instead powered by electricity.

Now imagine, one day in the near future, communities, cities, and entire countries made up of all-electric buildings connected to electrical grids supplied by renewable energy. That is the holy grail of decarbonization.

It is what the utility sector calls beneficial electrification—and the mission of organizations like the Pennsylvania Solar Center. Its number one priority is to get more solar power on the grid. Not only because it is essential for achieving zero emissions, but because it offers home and building owners substantial financial benefits.

“Once we get to 5% solar that starts reducing the cost of wholesale energy across the board. Then that’s starting to benefit everybody, even if they don’t have solar on their rooftops. When we get to 10% solar, then we’re talking about saving millions of dollars for people all across the grid,” says Sharon Pillar, the center’s founder and director.

Still, it’s an uphill climb that requires not only public demand, but political will and the right policies—something Pillar and the center are fighting for every day.

As one panelist put it: “We must sustain public policy that is aligned with public interest. It is a false choice to say you either have to choose solar or gas or electric or something yet to be identified. There’s room for every player to be successful if we are going to reach that vision of a clean energy future.”

As we embark on this transition to clean energy and beneficial electrification, it must be accomplished in way that is just for all. And, to be beneficial, it must meet the three components of affordability, decreased user consumption, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

New Tools Track Embodied Carbon

Embodied carbon increasingly is becoming a concern for many of those on the frontlines of the building and construction industry who are aware of its impact on climate. Unlike operational carbon, which can be mitigated by instituting energy efficiency improvements and through the use of renewable energy, that is not the case for the carbon footprint left by the production and transport of materials needed to construct buildings.

Architecture 2030 reports that embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of total new construction emissions between now and 2050.
Helping the industry deal with embodied carbon emissions is what the Seattle-based nonprofit Building Transparency is all about. Its core mission is “to provide the open access data and tools necessary to enable broad and swift action across the building industry in addressing embodied carbon’s role in climate change.”

The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool is the result of the organization’s work. According to Building Transparency, it allows benchmarking, assessment, and reductions in embodied carbon, focused on the upfront supply chain emissions of construction materials. The EC3 tool uses building material quantities from construction estimates and/or BIM models and a robust database of digital, third-party verified Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

“EPDs are like a nutrition label for building materials,” says Stacy Smedley, senior director of sustainability at Skanska USA, who developed the tool and founded Building Transparency. “Think about being on a low carb diet, going to the grocery store, and shopping for cereal. You’re going to pick up those boxes and read the nutrition labels to check the amount of carbohydrates per serving size. It’s exactly what we’re doing with carbon and building materials through EPDs. We are putting the construction industry on a low carbon diet.”

Up until now EPDs have been difficult and expensive to publish. But the new EC3 tool is making thousands of digital EPDs available, enabling the building and construction sector “to directly measure, compare and reduce the embodied carbon in specific new buildings.” The new EC3 tool is currently offered free to the industry.

Similarly, the Kingdom of Morocco, which has begun decarbonizing its built environment, is developing its own tools and trackers.

As a manufacturer and supplier to the construction industry, Covestro, as part of its commitment to become climate neutral by 2035, is developing a climate neutral product portfolio to help the industry reduce its embodied carbon footprint.

Advancing Sustainable Cooling

Like heating, cooling is essential for human health, comfort, and vitality.

Yet some 1.1 billion people lack access to cooling, with the vast majority of them in Asia and Africa. These are precisely the people who need cooling technologies as the world warms.

According to the World Bank, cooling contributes to climate change by increasing demand for electricity, much of which is still generated from fossil fuels, and through the leakage of refrigerants, which have a much higher global warming potential than CO2 emissions. Conventional cooling devices like refrigerators, room air conditioners, industrial scale chillers, and other devices account for as much as 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than twice the emissions generated from aviation and maritime combined. Furthermore, if left unchecked, emissions from cooling are expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2100, driven by heat waves, population growth, urbanization, and a growing middle class.

Conventional cooling devices like refrigerators, room air conditioners, industrial scale chillers, and other devices account for as much as 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Today sustainable cooling is an imperative. One many believe we must get right. Putting an air conditioner or refrigerator in every home is not the answer. NGO Sustainable Energy for All says “cooling for all” means providing more sustainable and affordable solutions to address the needs of the vulnerable, including improved access to nutritious food and safe medicines and protection from heat as the world transitions to clean energy.

There is an urgent need to scale up sustainable cooling solutions and innovate new approaches that will ultimately have wide practical application. Current options, according to Sustainable Energy for All, include using insulation, shade, reflectivity, and/or ventilation for natural cooling and working collaboratively to deliver better and more sustainable products, services policies, and financing.

Increasing the use of more energy-efficient appliances is another option. Covestro is replacing raw materials derived from fossil fuels with those made from things like biomass, recycled materials, and CO2. One of these products for the building industry is a cradle-to-gate climate neutral methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), which is used to produce rigid polyurethane foam, the insulation material that increases energy efficiency in buildings and refrigerators.

The Future is Now

The good news is that there are a number of effective best practices available to the buildings and construction sector to increase energy efficiency, reduce embodied carbon, and mitigate climate change in communities around the world. These are practices that can be implemented today.

We need builders and architects to dig deep, learn about as many solutions as possible, and embed them into the building and design process. The planet and all its people will be thankful.