Decarbonising the building sector: part 2.


Bashar Al Shawa, Senior Associate

Opportunities and challenges.

Read part 1 here.

While being the Technical Manager of SBTi’s buildings sector project, our Senior Associate Bashar Al Shawa has shared his insights on the initiative’s latest progress and the challenges associated with decarbonising the buildings sector. This blog first appeared in Building Magazine on 19th September 2022.

Buildings, climate action and the challenges ahead

One of the main discussions currently taking place within the SBTi’s Technical Working Group (TWG) and the wider EAG community is whether the SBTi’s Buildings Project should include an energy efficiency pathway, alongside the in-use emissions pathway. The focus on emissions alone could lead to a situation where, with the rapid decarbonisation of the power grid in various countries, a building may be labelled as ‘net-zero carbon’ while also being extremely energy inefficient. This goes against the correct energy hierarchy of reducing demand first, and then meeting that reduced demand with renewable energy.

The current emissions-only pathway also ignores the limited availability of renewable energy.

Recent research has sounded the alarms. If the global energy demand continues to increase at its current pace and we wish to supply that demand through a 100% renewable energy system, our demand for lithium for energy storage would be almost double current proven reserves.

The priority must therefore be to reduce the building sector’s energy demand through energy efficiency improvements to ensure the sector operates within the renewable energy supply limit.

Another talking point, one relating to the project’s third objective, is investigating how the outcomes of this project could contribute to existing sector initiatives. There is already an ‘over-supply’ of initiatives and standards for buildings, but the alignment of these with a 1.5°C trajectory is not clear. The challenge is to develop targets and performance indicators that could be readily adopted by these initiatives and standards so as to make them 1.5°C-aligned and maximize the impact of the SBTi’s Buildings Project.

Closing the performance gap

The performance gap – i.e., where a building’s calculated energy use does not match that measured in reality – is a common phenomena within the sector. Often caused by a number of different factors such as the rebound effect, competency of energy modeller and construction quality, this gap can be as high as a factor of four. That is, a building’s measured energy consumption can be four times higher than that modelled. Even in rating schemes with stringent documentation requirements, such as the German Passivhaus, this can be as high as 147%. It is therefore fair to conclude that in a framework where the assessment and verification of buildings’ performance is limited, such a gap would continue to exist.

The SBTi is starting efforts to close this gap by developing a framework that will provide general and sector-specific criteria and recommendations to companies regarding measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of progress against science-based targets. As with the ‘over-supply’ of buildings standards point discussed above, this framework could be based on existing mechanisms that aim to achieve the same end-goal.

Companies operating in the building sector (e.g., those dedicated to residential and commercial building or industrial construction, architects, engineers, developers, building owners and investors) must step up their climate action efforts immediately if they are to be on the right side of history and lead the transformation to a global net-zero economy.

We are confident that, with the support of our EAG and the wider stakeholder community, we will navigate these and other challenges to enable the transition towards a socially-just, sustainable built environment that is within planetary limits. Find out more in the SBTi Buildings Sector Project page and commit to set a science-based target now.