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COP21: 'How we build is key to lowering emissions'

WISE Building
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The Climate Summit in Paris needs to deliver a ‘zero emissions’ long term goal and plans for adaptation, says Philip James


The Climate Summit in Paris needs to deliver a ‘zero emissions’ long term goal and plans for adaptation. Much of what is needed for a zero emission, well adapted future is encompassed in how we plan, build and power our homes and buildings.

At the Paris Climate Summit we hope to see the adoption of a ‘zero emissions’ long term goal, such as the ‘net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050’ goal proposed by business-led environmental coalition The B Team. Such a goal will set a clear direction of travel and there are already numerous reports and scenarios that map out what such a future would look like. The Paris process and beyond must also make adaptation planning integral to our emission reduction and development pathways.

What a zero emissions, well adapted future looks like is encompassed in many respects by how we need to plan, build and power our homes and other buildings.

We must reduce wasted energy from leaky buildings

Firstly, high levels of energy efficiency is a key requisite - we cannot power up with clean energy if we do not significantly power down and improve our energy efficiency. Not only must we reduce wasted energy, such as that escaping from leaky buildings, we must have smarter ‘circular’ thinking, for example, seeing the heat generated under our cities as a resource rather than a problem. 

Secondly, to power up our homes and buildings we need to maximise our clean energy resources, be that decentralised sources such as roof-top solar or large-scale projects such as offshore wind farms. Many studies show that, if we do so, we can get all the energy we need from clean and renewable sources. But we must take a ‘whole-system’ approach and consider carefully which clean energy source to use where. For example, considering how limited supplies of biomass-derived fuels are best used. And crucially we must think about the interaction between supply and demand, such that we can deliver a stable and reliable energy system. For example, building in sufficient energy storage to increase the flexibility of when our buildings require power from the grid.

It is essential we consider the type of materials used to construct buildings

It is also essential, as with all manufactured goods, that we consider the type of materials used in constructing our buildings. We must again applying ‘circular’ thinking to ensure the recyclability and reuse of materials. And we should certainly be considering the current embodied carbon and energy implications of our material choices. But we should also consider how the materials we use and develop fit into a zero emissions future. For example, how much and what kinds of energy do they require in their manufacture (relatively abundant clean electricity or scarcer solid, liquid or gas fuels) and, if applicable, what are the land use implications of materials and how do they compare with alternative material and land use options?

Lastly, but integrally, we need to ensure that our zero emission buildings are adapted to the inevitable changes in climate that are happening and cannot be avoided, be that higher summer temperatures or increased flood risk. Again, we should take a ‘whole-system’ or holistic approach. Recognising, for example, that land use choices many miles from developments but in their rainwater catchments may have as big a role in flood risk as more local attenuation measures. That reducing traffic noise may make night-time cooling more viable. Or that urban vegetation has numerous roles to play from evaporative cooling and water management to improving wellbeing and encouraging higher density living.

Adopting a zero emission goal at Paris or soon after, as well as making adaptation planning central to the emission reduction process, can focus minds on where we need to get to and encourage the development of detailed visions of what that future looks like. As shown here, our homes and buildings if planned, built and powered using smart, efficient, and holistic ‘whole-system’ approaches can be central to demonstrating and delivering the zero emission, well adapted future we need. 

Philip James is a Zero Carbon Britain researcher at the Centre for Alternative Technology

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