In 2015 the international treaty on climate change known as The Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 nations. This was the first binding agreement to bring all nations into a common cause to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. The goal was to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably below 1.5°C. A framework for financial, technical, and capacity-building support was set up for those countries that need it.  Countries were required to report on actions taken and progress in combating climate change, adaptation measures, and the support provided or received.

The United Nations released a report in October of 2022: Emissions Gap Report: 2022: The Closing Window - Climate crisis calls for rapid transformation of societies. This report provides insight into the difference between where greenhouse emissions are predicted to be in 2030 and where they should be to avert the most severe effects of climate change.

Construction and the Climate Crisis

The report revealed that the international community is falling short of the goals in the Paris Agreement. There is a gap between the promised emission reductions and those needed to achieve the temperature goals. The action on the climate crisis has been inadequate. There is no longer a credible pathway to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C. Based on current activity, we are predicted to experience a 2.8°C temperature rise by 2100. If current pledges are fulfilled, it will only reduce this to a 2.4-2.6°C increase. The pledges themselves are questionable as the credibility and feasibility of emissions pledges remain uncertain.

The report explored how to undergo an urgent system-wide transformation to deliver the cuts needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and get back on track to 1.5°C. They determined that the world must cut emissions by 45% to avoid catastrophe.

This is a tall order, particularly considering that G20 members are not on track to achieve their nationally determined contributions. Achieving the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement would require wide-ranging, large-scale, rapid transformation. Meeting goals will require more ambitious targets and following through on emission reduction commitments.

The Building Sector and The Emissions Gap

The transformation to zero greenhouse gas emissions is underway in the electricity supply, industry, transportation, and buildings sectors. Within the building sector, there are actions that can be taken at all levels to accelerate the transformation to zero emissions. 

National governments can regulate emissions and incentivize reductions. They can facilitate the transformation to zero-carbon buildings. Local and state or provincial governments can implement plans for zero emissions, integrate emission requirements in urban planning, and add requirements beyond federal regulations for energy efficiency. Businesses should review their business models, embrace the most efficient available technologies, and work towards achieving zero=carbon owned or rented building stock. Business investors can support renovations and adjust their investment criteria to support transformation. Citizens can retrofit homes to reduce their carbon footprint and embrace behavior changes aimed at reducing emissions.

The COVID-19 pandemic response caused a drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 4.7 percent from 2019 to 2020. This represents the largest single-year drop in emissions since the data set started in 1970. By 2021, the building sector’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions had rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic to an all-time high.

So now that we are here, what can be done within the building sector? Steps that should be taken in construction include avoiding building new inefficient buildings, avoiding new gas connections for buildings, increasing the rate of retrofitting existing structures, and building only zero-emission buildings. Builders and product manufacturers should look to reduce waste to lower costs and emissions. Low-carbon industrial processes should be favored in manufacturing. Material use can be reduced through efficient design, lightweight products, and products with longer lifetimes. Since maintaining building temperature is energy-intensive, optimizing the building envelope to minimize the need for heating and cooling, moving to zero-emission heating and cooling technology, and minimizing emissions from construction materials will help the buildings become zero-carbon.

Digital Strategies for Reducing Emissions  

A digital strategy can help all businesses reduce their carbon footprint. A digital strategy is a roadmap for implementing digital technologies that support business goals and include online collaboration apps, business software, robots, e-commerce, robotics, and sensors.  Digital technology can be used to collect environmental data, identify wasteful processes, and implement technologies to increase energy efficiency in buildings and processes.

Technology used by the design community can be leveraged to reduce emissions.  Building information modeling (BIM) has the potential to be applied in carbon reduction strategies. Tally Climate Action Tool, or tallyCAT has a beta public release available for download for Revit (BIM software) users. This open-access plug-in allows users to chose building materials not only based on the needs of their project, but also gives users the power to assess carbon reduction opportunities.

In recent years many of us have found that our jobs can be done from home as well as they were done in an office, if not better. Working from home has the potential to reduce personal emissions by up to 80%. The emissions reduction of remote work can be erased if remote work results in increased leisure travel, but this is of course the exception. Remote work reduces traffic emissions, and while working from home an individual’s behaviors largely determine their carbon footprint. 

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we are capable of making dramatic shifts in behavior. We could harness this adaptability to meet our climate goals. We can take action to collectively meet our goals and avert some of the most dramatic impacts of the climate crisis, but the window to act is closing. 

To learn more about the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report, read the full report or watch the UN Secretary-General’s video message.