03/12/2015 10:03 GMT | Updated 02/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Buildings Could Hold the Key to Climate Change, We Just Need to Turn It

As many of you will know, the COP21 climate summit has been going on this week, where international leaders and scientists will discuss how we can avert climate change. What you may not know is that buildings are responsible for an estimated 40% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single contributor of carbon emissions. There are two factors in particular that will likely drive further emissions related to buildings:

  • The global population continues to grow at a high pace. Recent figures from the UN predict that the world's population will reach 8.5bn in the next 15 years, up from 7.3bn today.
  • Furthermore, there is a continued movement of people from rural to urban areas, which increases the need for housing and places of work, study and recreation.

In summary this means that the total amount of buildings will continue to grow rapidly.

The continued population growth and urbanization means that the global building stock is growing by a staggering 24% between 2013 and 2023 alone. This will further drive massive emissions increases across the globe, unless we make a change to the way we design our buildings.

It's no surprise, therefore, that this year's summit has seen the addition of a dedicated 'Buildings Day' today (3rd December), devoted to discussing how we create a more sustainable built environment.

There is significant potential from improving buildings. While we have seen good progress on making larger construction projects more sustainable, experts estimate that only 5% of smaller construction projects are designed for high performance.

The good news is that we already have all the technologies and solutions we need to make better buildings. Better use of design software and techniques can reduce the building energy consumption by 42-87%. And given that 60% of the world's building stock will be either rebuilt or newly created between now and 2030, there is plenty of opportunity to get building design "right". However, the cost of energy is still relatively low - both compared to the high global cost of carbon emissions and also compared to the other costs related to creating and operating buildings. Therefore, more needs to be done to incentivise the buildings and construction industry to design for high performance and better sustainability.

Governments have tried to drive improved building performance through regulation, for instance by mandating that all new construction projects have their performance assessed to a certain standard before they can be built. However, one of the problems is that many of the standards mandated for evaluation of designs are still based on simple spreadsheet calculations, informed by technology constraints of the past decade. There is no reason to continue to use these outdated tools. Today, thanks to advances in cloud computing and physics simulation, powerful software for high-performance building design is both accessible and cost effective. All businesses respond to incentives, so governments can help speed up change by mandating more sophisticated building design methods. Regulators should also encourage, or even go so far as to reward, developers that exceed targets for the efficiency and sustainability of new buildings.

COP21 is a unique opportunity for governments and NGOs organisations to create initiatives that can act fast and do more. Because there's no reason not to make every new or retrofitted building a high performance building. The technology is here, we just need to use it.