The crucial role architecture plays in our response to climate change

The future of our civilization unquestionably lies in the decisions we make today and the actions we take in response to the situation we are presented with. One of the most burning topics of our time is climate change. In terms of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the A&E (architecture and engineering) industry has a big role to play. Let’s explore where we are and what we can do to create more resilient and sustainable solutions when designing and renovating our cities. 

The impact of buildings on greenhouse gas emissions

According to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, a leading global platform working towards zero-emission, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector, buildings are consuming 36% of the energy we create globally, resulting in nearly 40% of global CO2 emissions. Being one of the most predominant greenhouse gasses, CO2 is a significant contributor to the steady growth in the average temperatures on our planet. NASA’s researchers have observed that, since the first industrial revolution, the average temperatures have risen approximately 1°C with two-thirds of this growth having occurred since 1975, at a rate of 0.15 - 0.20°C per decade. This change of 1°C is significant because a vast amount of heat is required to warm all the oceans, land and atmosphere by as much. In the past, a 1 - 2°C drop was enough to plunge the Earth into the ice age.

The change in our climate can be observed in such phenomena as weather patterns changing and the increasing number of extreme weather events, for example tornadoes, bushfires, floods, tsunamis, droughts, etc. As a response, various industries, including A&E industry, are seeking out ways to address the cause of the problem and provide solutions. 

A&E responds to the crisis 

Since buildings are one of the biggest CO2 emitters, the A&E industry holds the best cards when it comes to fighting climate change. It can be done even in the earliest stage of the building lifecycle where it makes the most economical sense: the design stage. There are two major ways architects and engineers are responding to climate change:

  1. By reducing the impact buildings and infrastructure make on the environment;
  2. By preparing for the further escalation of weather anomalies, in other words, renovating existing buildings and designing new ones with the objective of achieving resilience and long-term sustainability.  

In 2006, for example, the Architecture 2030, a non-profit, non-partisan and independent organization established in response to the climate change crisis in 2002, issued The 2030 Challenge asking the global architecture and building community to strive towards certain standards, including: 

  • Designing new buildings, developments, and major renovations to consume 70% less energy than the average for that building type in the region or country; 
  • At a minimum, renovating an equal amount of existing building area annually to meet the same below-70% target; 
  • Becoming completely carbon-neutral by 2030, i.e. using no fossil fuel energy to operate.

But, where do I start? 

CO2 emissions generated by buildings fall within two categories: embodied and operational emissions.

As stated in the 2019 report by the World Green Building Council, embodied emissions, also called “upfront” carbon, representing 11% of global CO2 emissions, are associated with materials and construction processes through the building lifecycle. To minimize “upfront” carbon, utilization of low-carbon materials and construction processes is critical. In this context, the responsibility lies not only in the hands of architects and engineers (to demand the use of low-carbon materials in their projects), but also manufacturers (to produce these materials) and construction companies (to secure low-carbon construction processes).

Operational CO2 emissions, representing 28% of global CO2 emissions (from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings), is where the A&E industry can make the most impactful environmental mark for future generations. Making design decisions with the goal of improving the energy performance of the most energy-intensive building systems such as HVAC and lighting. Since the energy performance of these systems is directly influenced by local climatic conditions, insight into the changes transpiring to the climate in the specific location of a building is critical. This is what you can get from MeteoInsight - actionable insight into climate change on a local level. Here are a few use cases for you to explore.

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