Building the Future

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40; Sonia Medina, Executive Director of Climate Change, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation; and Dan Hamza-Goodacre, Director Buildings and Industry, ClimateWorks Foundation

The shift from rural to urban means that we now experience the vast majority of our lives inside buildings, at least for the more than half of people on Earth who live in cities. Whether you notice them or not, buildings matter. From the hospitals where we are born to the schools and universities where we study; from the offices where our careers develop to the flats, apartments and houses we call home; from the libraries and museums where we go to learn to the ones where we worship or come together as communities, these are the spaces in which our lives are lived.

Unsurprisingly then, buildings also consume on average more energy than any other feature of city life. Which means they are amongst the major contributors to climate change. Buildings have an average lifespan of over 40 years, so as we look ahead to the cities of 2050, with hundreds of millions more urban citizens, the decisions made today by mayors, architects and developers will have a huge impact on the future climate.

To deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change and prevent catastrophic global warming requires urgent action. C40’s Deadline 2020 research shows that the world’s megacities cities must immediately reduce energy demand and clean up the energy supply so that global emissions peak by 2020 at the latest, and decline consistently thereafter. The recent monsoon floods in Mumbai and Dhaka or the destruction wreaked by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Houston and Miami, show the risks that our cities face if these threats aren’t addressed. And it is the most vulnerable who are hit hardest - children, women and the elderly are often the most impacted by climate danger.

© Paris/Emilie Chaix 

So what needs to happen to ensure the buildings that shape our lives also shape our climate in a positive direction? Going forward, new buildings will need to be net zero carbon, operating at high levels of energy efficiency and using on and offsite clean energy to meet remaining needs. Most existing buildings must be retrofitted to use significantly less energy and to rely on clean energy supplies. Concerted and urgent action by cities around the world is therefore essential.

This is not only a climate change issue. Improving our buildings is critical for human health and prosperity in other ways. Poorly heated and cooled homes or offices cause and exacerbate illnesses, reduce productivity, affect concentration, and are more expensive for their residents than more energy efficient buildings. Coal, gas or oil are still used to power and heat buildings in many cities around the world. The emissions from these sources are amongst the most toxic to human health and account for nearly half of the global total emissions of PM2.5 – the most damaging pollutant. Our buildings are poisoning the air that we breathe and causing millions of premature deaths each year and damaging the health of our children.

That is why C40 is committed to helping cities create better buildings, by launching the C40 Building Energy 2020 Programme, in partnership with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and ClimateWorks Foundation. The programme will support more than 50 of the world’s largest cities to take action and develop policies that urgently reduce emissions from existing buildings, and avoid carbon lock-in by ensuring that all new buildings are low or zero emissions. It will also help cities to use buildings as sources of low carbon energy, by installing solar panels or capturing waste heat. Through the Cities Finance Facility, C40 will support cities to make those plans investment-ready.

The Building Energy 2020 Programme will deliver support to cities through a variety of methods: embedding technical advisors in selected cities and providing short periods of consultancy guidance to overcome specific barriers, developing city-led research projects, and hosting action-oriented workshops, all while leveraging the experience of and sharing lessons with city peers through C40’s four building and energy networks. The exemplar policies or plans developed as well as the best practices identified will also be shared beyond the C40 network, catalyzing global action and setting a new standard for what an ambitious buildings policy is.

Overall, the Building Energy 2020 Programme will make a major contribution to the transformation of our cities, needed to avoid dangerous climate change. We estimate that it will directly save at least 76 MtCO2 per year by 2030 –equivalent to nearly twice the annual emissions of Greater London – and much more indirectly through inspiring action by cities beyond the C40 network. It is complemented by similarly ambitious efforts of partner organisations, like the City Energy Project in the U.S. and the World Green Building Council’s net zero carbon buildings project.

Our lives are shaped by our homes, workplaces and schools. The buildings in the world’s great cities influence our health, economy, our global climate and therefore the prospects of tens of millions of children in every part of the world. Better buildings are within our grasp, but bigger, bolder action is needed to unlock their potential.