Findings from the third IPCC working group says retrofit work and adoption of low carbon electric heat will be vital to meet global targets

A major UN environmental report argues that buildings have significant potential to realistically deliver on global decarbonisation ambitions from a technical and design perspective. However, this potential for reducing and offsetting emissions from functions such as heating must be matched by more effective policy around encouraging retrofit work and adopting low carbon technologies in homes and commercial buildings.

The latest findings from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said it was vital for more ambitious policies around the world looking at ensuring that both new and existing buildings can operate as net zero carbon structures by 2050.

A lack of ambitious government policies and support currently risks locking countries into using higher carbon heat/cooling systems and inefficient building design for decades, the IPCC concluded. The findings were produced by its third Working Group report that is focused on brining together research focused on climate change mitigation.

Three different working groups have now produced findings over the last year for the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on climate change. This will be used to help determine the scale of work needed to limit temperature rises caused by climate change to no more than 1.5 Deg C of pre-industrial levels.

The IPCC findings stated, “Integrated design approaches to the construction and retrofit of buildings have led to increasing examples of zero energy or zero carbon buildings in several regions. However, the low renovation rates and low ambition of retrofitted buildings have hindered the decrease of emissions.”

Main recommendations

The Working Group 3 findings also set out a range of ‘mitigation interventions’ intended to reduce overall emissions at the different points of a building’s life.  At the design stage, the IPCC document recommended rethinking the form of a building and also considering how existing buildings can be repurposed for multiple functions. This would avoid the risk of more carbon intensive demolition and the construction of entirely new buildings that would require fresh materials to be supplied.

Where new construction work does take place, the IPCC called for consideration of the increased use of low-emission construction materials, improved efficiency in the design of structures and the integration of renewable energy solutions and highly efficient systems into buildings.

The reuse and recycling of construction materials are meanwhile backed as an important strategy for the disposal phase of buildings.

The IPCC added that the widescale transformation of energy networks and power generation would also be an important step to decarbonisation.

It stated, “This will involve a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen).”

Jim Skea, co-Chair of the IPCC Working Group 3, added that there were examples of zero energy or zero-carbon building projects under in almost every climate around the world. These projects would be needed to scaled up, according to the IPCC>

Mr Skea said, “Action in this decade is critical to capture the mitigation potential of buildings.”

UKGBC reaction

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) said the IPCC’s findings highlighted the opportunities to adapt the country’s current building stock in order to limit national carbon emissions.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UKGBC, argued that the Working Group 3 findings identified buildings and cities as one of the main areas needing to be prioritised to keep net zero aims on track.

She said, “Failure to drive ambitious retrofit politics compounded by poorly designed new buildings ‘locking in carbon for future generations’, as well as slow efforts to decarbonise energy supplies, are all cited by the IPCC as putting us on track for a climate disaster.”

Ms Hirigoyen said there was a welcome focus in the IPCC’s findings on the potential of the built environment to deliver meaningful change in terms of both carbon reduction targets and other major sustainable development goals set out by the UN.

She added, “Many of the solutions already exist – as clearly noted by the IPCC – but what is missing is the political ambition and financial incentives needed to make this happen at scale. Half measures will not halve our emissions, and the UK is no exception to this.”

With he government expected to shortly set out its ‘Energy Independence Strategy’, the UKGBC said it as calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to commit to moving away from fossil fuels in their entirety in line with the IPCC recommendations.

Ms Hirigoyen said in place of the country’; s existing reliance fossil fuels in buildings, mass scale energy efficiency improvements and other measures to curb energy demand for the purposes of heating should be expanded dramatically.

She said, “With energy usage in homes alone representing 16 per cent of total UK emissions, the upcoming energy strategy is a golden opportunity to make significant emissions reductions whilst tackling some of the most pressing issues facing the nation.”

“Reducing our dependence on gas imports, ensuring bills are kept affordable, as well as achieving the prime minister’s vision of a ‘levelled up’ Britain are just three of the no-regrets benefits of prioritising domestic energy efficiency in his strategy.”


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