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Decarbonizing the building sector – 10 key measures

This report highlights a set of essential measures and successful examples for incorporating building activities in decarbonization efforts for governments to include in their NDCs.
Decarbonising the building sector


The building sector accounts directly and indirectly for 38 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions (UNEP 2020). Energy use and global emissions associated with buildings had been increasing steadily until 2019, and estimates suggest that the global pandemic will have only modest effects on this trend. The major drivers of these increases are the continued use of coal, oil and natural gas for heating and cooking; the growing world population; increases in purchasing power in emerging economies and developing countries; rapid expansion in total floor area in the building sector; and growth in demand for energy-consuming services.

This report* by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC) aims to inspire senior officials and decision makers in national, subnational and local governments to decarbonize the building sector, and to show them how to start. It does not present a comprehensive strategy, but rather highlights a set of essential measures and successful examples from intervention areas identified in the GlobalABC Regional Roadmaps – new buildings, existing buildings, building operations, building materials, and resilience.

*A summary of the paper can be found below. Download the full publication from the right-hand column for more details.

Key messages

From the report: schematic showing 5 key areas for decarbonising buildings (green text)

Moving to a zero-emission and resilient building and construction sector requires action in all key areas – new buildings, existing buildings, building operations, building materials and resilience. Senior officials and decision makers can contribute to the decarbonization of the building sector by setting up effective regulation, planning policies and strategies; financing and enabling increased action; building capacities and raising awareness among stakeholders in the building sector; and leading by example through their own public buildings and policies.

  • Decarbonizing and future-proofing buildings requires effective action covering the entire building life cycle from design and the selection and manufacturing of materials to construction to operations through renovation and deconstruction
  • Efforts towards decarbonization can be mutually reinforcing, provide cross-benefits, support just transitions, and contribute to health and well-being and air quality
  • All countries can adopt key measures
  • Comprehensive action extends beyond site boundaries to neighbourhood planning, cross-sectoral strategies and clean energy
  • Cost-effective and no-cost measures exist, but are not yet sufficiently promoted and implemented

While the report does not provide a “comprehensive strategy”, the measures it outlines are designed to help governments, local authorities and construction sector organisations achieve net-zero targets.

10 Essential steps to decarbonise the BUILDING SECTOR
  1. Establish and implement an ambitious energy code for buildings
  2. Support the use of integrated design
  3. Promote deep energy renovation
  4. Lead by example by decarbonizing public buildings
  5. Use energy information and behaviour change to drive energy efficiency
  6. Promote financing for energy efficiency
  7. Enable easy access to information on the carbon footprint of materials
  8. Develop public procurement policies that incentivise materials with low carbon footprints
  9. Integrate nature-based solutions into urban planning, buildings and construction
  10. Develop integrated resilience strategies and plans for the built environment

Resilience and adaptation

From the report section on the key area: Resilience

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT In urban areas, risks related to climate change – such as rising sea levels, storm surges and heat stress – are increasing. As cities grow, the area of artificial, impermeable surfaces increases and exacerbates existing short term risks such as floods or long-term risks such as heat island effects. With half of the world’s population living in urban areas, many of them in low-lying coastal cities, the resilience of settlements and buildings is becoming a pressing issue. Actions for improving resilience typically provide multiple co-benefits, while many solutions to decarbonizing the building sector also strengthen resilience.

SPECIFIC CHALLENGES Enhancing resilience of the built environment requires interventions at a range of scales from urban planning to individual buildings. Urban systems need to be addressed in a holistic manner, considering the complex nature of cities’ functions and structures. Design standards for buildings and building materials will have to change in order to withstand the new weather conditions and to reduce climate-related risks. Given the lifespan of a building, solutions need to be flexible and suitable for changing climate conditions.

KEY MEASURE 9. INTEGRATE NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS INTO URBAN PLANNING, BUILDINGS AND CONSTRUCTION Nature-based solutions – green corridors, green roofs, urban tree canopies and permeable pavements and other green infrastructure – have a variety of climate-related benefits, particularly in urban areas. They reduce extreme heat and the impacts of flooding, prevent erosion and increase carbon sequestration. The co-benefits include better air and water quality, which contribute to the quality of life of urban dwellers and to the building sector’s sustainability in a comprehensive way

KEY MEASURE 10. DEVELOP INTEGRATED RESILIENCE STRATEGIES AND PLANS FOR THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT The careful consideration of resilience promotes a holistic view of urban systems, embracing the interconnected and complex nature of cities’ spatial configurations, physical assets, socioeconomic functions and organizational structures (UNEP/GlobalABC 2020). Integrated risk assessment and long-term resilience strategies can ensure that the adaptation of existing buildings and the integration of resilience into new construction occur in a comprehensive manner. They empower stakeholders to set strategic targets and implement projects that will enable communities to adapt when faced with multiple natural and human-caused shocks or chronic stresses.

KEY MEASURE 10 EXAMPLE: ACCRA RESILIENCE STRATEGY Accra, the capital of Ghana, is facing rapid urban expansion and is highly vulnerable to floods, the collapse of infrastructure and buildings, fires due to electrical faults and illegal power connections, and disease outbreaks resulting from poor sanitation and waste management. This situation creates complex challenges for the local government and calls for an integrated approach to infrastructure planning and the provision of services. Accra’s resilience strategy, released in 2019, puts forward a number of integrated, cross-cutting initiatives to tackle interconnected risks. An incentive programme encourages developers to integrate renewable and energy efficiency technology into commercial buildings, and is expected to contribute to sustainable energy future that accommodates both climate and population pressures. A Chief Resilience Officer leads the strategy, and ensures that the city applies a resilience lens, that resources are leveraged holistically and that projects are planned for synergies.

Lessons and implications:

  • By incentivizing renewables and reducing energy demand on the national grid, the Accra resilience strategy contributes to decarbonization of the building sector and enhances resilience in the electricity system
  • The resilience strategy ensures that a set of integrated solutions benefits all those living and working in the city
  • Mainstreaming resilience within city governance is a long process consisting of the establishment of a dedicated resilience team, a comprehensive resilience assessment and a continuous resilience dialogue involving a wide range of stakeholders

Further resources:

Suggested citation:
Steinemann, M & Kessler, S. (2021). Decarbonizing the Building Sector – 10 Key Measures. UNEP Global ABC

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