Why setting net-zero carbon standards is imperative for mitigating climate change
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Why setting net-zero carbon standards is imperative for mitigating climate change

Why setting net-zero carbon standards is imperative for mitigating climate change

Adopting smart energy and building management systems can not only reduce carbon emissions, but also reduce electricity bills significantly


Although urban spaces represent only three per cent of the earth’s land surface, they account for more than 70 per cent of the total carbon emissions. According to the World Green Building Council, every building in the world must become ‘net-zero carbon’ by 2050 in order to maintain global warming below 1.5°C – however less than 1 per cent of the global building stock at present meets this standard.

Data further shows that the primary sources of global greenhouse emissions are buildings, energy production and transport, when put together, it is clear this is a natural consequence of rapid urbanisation.

This calls for more aggressive, far-reaching, and sustained actions that involves rethinking and transforming the physical places where we live and work — with people’s experience, public health and sustainability objectives at their core.

Revitalising our planet’s health and winning the battle against climate change will require the setting of net-zero carbon standards for new buildings and construction; long-term investments to retrofit and digitise the current building stock and infrastructure; and envisioning a more holistic approach for planning and managing our communities.

Designing for climate change
Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings usually implies greener construction methods as well as the choice of materials. However, a carbon neutral built environment begins with design. Architects, for instance, need to be more cognisant of the ’embodied carbon’ of a building, i.e., the total greenhouse emissions generated to produce a built asset.

Meeting compliance outcomes shouldn’t be the only goal of designers. How buildings will operate and perform along its lifespan requires design considerations too. As the market becomes more conscious and committed to a zero-carbon future, low-carbon design can become a reality for more and more buildings.

Climate responsive design that minimises energy consumption in buildings and associated carbon emissions makes the role of architects and engineers even more critical. Passive design measures such as building orientation i.e., maximising or minimising a building’s passive solar gains in different seasons can reduce cooling loads effectively in this region.

Moreover, the current roster of digital design tools allows designers, architects, planners, and energy consultants to delve into numerous, intricate interactions between the building, its systems, the climate, budget, and operations over its lifespan, thus helping quantify and foresee complex dependencies for accomplishing low-cost sustainable strategies.

Mobilising infrastructure
Mitigating climate change requires not only significantly reducing carbon emissions, but also actively capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) at the source, which is needed to decarbonise the manufacturing sector, for example. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a technological process that extracts CO2 from the emission stream, transports it and permanently and safely stores it underground, thus reducing emissions from energy-intensive industries. The process of carbon capture must be adapted to meet site-specific criteria, such as the availability of geological storage or the infrastructure to transport CO2.

Studies by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have found that the deployment of carbon capture and storage is critical to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To further support carbon capture and storage as a tool to combat climate change will requires new and emerging legislation.

Furthermore, incorporating climate goals into infrastructure considerations is also necessary to grow our resilience to climate change consequences; deter us from making carbon-intensive and polluting investments; and gain numerous other benefits, such as improved air quality and lower traffic congestion.

This leads us to smart grids as they represent the best opportunity to engage renewables at scale and to integrate sustainability into the electric system – at a speed essential for slowing down the impacts of climate change. Thanks to its ability to make demand response more pervasive and distribution generation more robust, smart grids can also address NOX and SOX emissions as a collateral benefit, in addition to CO2.

In essence, smart grids can shift the energy industry into a new era of smart energy which would enable reliability, abundance, accountability, resilience, and efficiency needed to strengthen a country’s economic health.

This raises a crucial question: how are countries around the world preparing for the transformation of their energy infrastructure? By taking a comprehensive view about the application of energy across infrastructure, technologies can help tackle major issues resulting from climate change, allowing the protection of natural resources and encouraging sustainable development by consuming energy more effectively.

Although it will take some time for the evolving smart grid to introduce smart energy to all countries, the evolving energy ecosystem will radically change the energy equation for future civilisations.

Clean electrification
Most cities in the world are powered by fossil fuels. These fuels are delivered via inefficient transformation processes, especially when it comes to heating/cooling and transport.

While the technologies to electrify cities by renewables exists, the main challenge is to scale up those renewables and build or reinforce grids to accommodate the electrification, both of which requires heavy investment. Clean electrification moves the biggest energy-consuming sectors in cities i.e. buildings to the electricity vector, while aiding the proliferation of renewables.

Retrofits are key to meeting net zero carbon targets. With the help of standards-based, digital interoperable solutions, we can now retrofit existing buildings in a more sustainable manner. We don’t need to necessarily construct brand new buildings.

Many existing buildings can be turned into resilient and self-reliant infrastructure of the future –ready for producing and handling their own energy needs, supporting the transition to electric vehicle fleets and delivering better experiences to those who use them.

The merging of electrification and digitisation in buildings is a vital starting point — and has the potential for rapid and significant gains. The segregation of the outer and inner shells of the building makes it easier to digitally enable the inner shell through data and analytics, at once transforming a traditional building into a smart building, with software and layout design upgrades available on demand.

Adopting smart energy and building management systems can not only reduce carbon emissions, but also reduce electricity bills significantly.

Additionally, microgrids can help integrate renewables at any scale and in closer proximity to their point of use, hence helping reduce transmission loss and ushering in a new age of sustainability. Bringing together clean end-use electrification, active energy management, and integrated design and smart technologies, with the support of effective financing, can considerably lower building energy usage and emissions.

Cross-sector multi-stakeholder partnerships is key
Radical cross-sector multi-stakeholder coordination is required to effectively tackle embodied carbon, and to revolutionise the built environment sector.

Why? Because achieving full decarbonisation across the global buildings sector requires taking a whole lifecycle approach.

Accomplishing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – set as part of the 2030 Agenda – is impossible without strategic partnerships between a myriad of influencers who can collectively mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technologies and financial resources across the world, especially in developing countries.

The road ahead is long. Achieving net-zero carbon targets requires serious thought and collaboration between multiple sectors and stakeholders who can collectively reimagine the way we design, construct and run the built environment.

Academia, particularly, have a key role in preparing the current and future generation of problem solvers who can effectively tackle the deepening climate crisis. Finally, a switch to a new way of doing things requires a shift in behaviour too. This is where government and policymakers can create a more favourable environment for sustainability-focused innovations as well as drive campaigns to encourage the adoption of sustainable practices among people.

Professor Dr Tadhg O’Donovan is the head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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