Green Buildings Take Center Stage as World Counts Down to COP26: An Interview with United Nations’ Scott Foster

Today marks 100 days to COP26, a global summit hosted by the United Nations to discuss how countries are tackling climate change. COP stands for the Conference of Parties, and the COP summits are attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994. This year’s summit is the 26th meeting of the group, hence the name COP26.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is challenging Member States to emerge from COP26 with an international commitment to high performance buildings, among other critical climate strategies.

This is a pivotal year for investments and commitments as we work to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The ways in which we re-build our buildings, communities, and cities will have lasting impacts on human and environmental health, the economy, and social equity.

Here in Western Pennsylvania, Green Building Alliance and its members continue to work towards a future where every building and every community is sustainable so that every person can thrive. Through the Greater Pittsburgh International Center of Excellence on High Performance Building, we work locally and with global partners to rapidly transform the built environment and make tangible progress towards the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

I recently asked UNECE Sustainable Energy Division Director Scott Foster about the commitments that will be put in front of Member States at COP26 and how the International Centers of Excellence on High Performance Building can support these commitments at the local and regional level.

 

From UNECE’s point of view, what does COP26 mean during this critical year for human and planet health?

We used to say that it was 10 past midnight on the climate change doomsday clock. The world was way late in responding to the growing threat of climate change. I remember doing a first study on climate change and growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as long ago as 1979! I was not running the study, of course, as I was just the newly-hired grunt doing basic research and information gathering. Had we acted then, the pathway would have been much easier, much less expensive, and much less socially disruptive. Unfortunately, the alarms were neither loud nor politically relevant.

Today we are in a very different place – reading the news it would appear the four horsemen of the apocalypse have been unleashed: floods, fires, pandemics, conflicts, and social upheavals. We now say that it is 30 minutes past midnight. We are even later than way late in responding. Climate change is now very politically relevant as it is directly impacting peoples’ livelihoods.

What does COP26 mean in this critical year? I remain convinced that we have the technology and the capability to address this problem. It is a matter of getting agreement among all parties on the way forward. This means defining the word “fair.” Everyone points the finger at the biggest emitters today, but this misses the point of what brought us here. If we consider that greenhouse gases accumulate over long periods of time, then “fair” should consider how much has been emitted cumulatively since the 1800s as the developed world developed. Should the developing world forgo their own quality of life aspirations? I think not. That whole conversation misses an important point that the solutions can be opportunity driven. Helping countries develop sustainably means investing in infrastructure, in technology, and in employment. For me COP26 is an opportunity for the world to put political correctness behind and realize that effective solutions are within reach. We must be pragmatic, agnostic, and recognize that there is not just a single, universal answer. Every country has its own starting point and its own panoply of tools. What matters is the collective outcome, and we must deliver on the climate agenda while delivering on the quality of life agenda globally. COP26 must deliver on effective integrated solutions.

What is the commitment you are asking Member States to sign on to by COP26?

UNECE is calling for bold, concrete actions on the 2030 Agenda and the Climate Agreement to move the dials on both the near term and to set the stage for longer-term, enduring changeAction in three specific areas – A Commitment Trifecta – will deliver near-term outcomes: 1) achieve superior performance in buildings, 2) address growing concentrations of methane in the atmosphere, and 3) modernize resource management. Longer term, three further initiatives would secure the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development while mitigating climate change: 1) achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, 2) ensure a just transition in removing social and political obstacles to realize transformative action, and 3) enable a hydrogen economy.

The development and climate agendas are linked inextricably because social and economic progress have historically depended on fossil energy, and the global environmental consequences of that dependence are clearer every day. As I noted, it will not be possible to address the climate challenge if quality of life aspirations are not met.

The Commitment Trifecta encourages countries to consider three areas of action in the high-level dialogue on energy the UN Secretary-General is convening in September and in any tightened commitments they wish to present at COP26 in November:

  • Buildings are central to meeting the sustainability challenge. Done right, buildings, the built environment, and the communities they support address clean energy and climate, deliver health and quality of life, improve employment, affordability, social equity, resilience, and carbon intensities, improve water and land resource management, and provide both mobility and technology access. The capability to meet the challenge exists today. Countries should commit to high performance buildings in their plans and targets.    
  • Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 120 times the climate forcing effect of CO2. Global atmospheric concentrations of methane have grown nearly 150 percent from pre-industrial levels and are far above the natural range of the last 650,000 years. Global emissions from human activity are projected to increase another 20 percent by 2030. Reducing methane emissions offers significant climate change benefits, especially in the near term, as there is a large reduction potential, and cost-effective mitigation technologies are readily available. Managing methane delivers important improvements in air quality and safety. UNECE is calling on countries to support a declaration by the UN General Assembly of an International Decade on Methane Management and to include robust programs for monitoring and remediating methane emissions. 
  • Today’s resource patterns are unsustainable in terms of their environmental and societal impact and in ensuring the availability of resources both now and in the future. Developments in resource management, including the supply of critical raw materials, will determine the capacity of countries to attain the 2030 Agenda.  Sustainable development will depend on the optimal and responsible production and use of natural resources. There is a need for global, principles-based action to develop a coherent framework for resource industries if the world is to meet its climate objectives and deliver quality of life at the community level. UNECE considers that countries should commit to a global framework for sustainable resource management.

A companion the Commitment Trifecta, A Push to Pivot, outlines three long-term initiatives that are needed to secure the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development while mitigating climate change:

  • National commitments made to date to address climate change are insufficient to keep global warming below a 2°C increase above pre-industrial temperatures. The window of opportunity to prevent climate change with a smooth transition has narrowed and more radical policy options are necessary. Delivering carbon neutrality will require a robust combination of improving energy efficiency and productivity, shifting to low or no carbon primary energy sources, controlling GHG emissions, removing CO2 directly from the air, deploying smart technology for systemic decarbonization, and managing carbon sinks.
  • Coal-based infrastructure is at the heart of industrial complexes that include mines, power stations, steel production, other affiliated industries, and urban areas. The substantial industrial and urban ecosystems that have developed around coal facilities represent an important socio-economic and hence political barrier to diversifying away from coal mining. Countries could support a just transition through industrial modernization to address short-term political drivers, notably employment in coal mining regions, that impede real action on energy for sustainable development, including climate change. 
  • Deploying hydrogen could be an effective means of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and delivering the energy needed for sustainable development. Hydrogen is not new – it has been produced and used in huge quantities for many years. In a future “hydrogen economy”, it would be used even more in transport, homes, industry, and power generation as part of an integrated, service-based society. By 2050 hydrogen could meet up to 24 percent of the world’s final energy demand and, if produced from zero carbon energy sources, could deliver significant decarbonization of the energy system.  Despite its vast potential to decarbonize energy, high costs and unclear policy and regulatory frameworks are obstacles to institution of a hydrogen economy. There is need for coordinated action within and among member States to enable full commercialization of hydrogen projects and infrastructure.

Why are high performance buildings so imperative to this commitment? And how do the International Centers of Excellence on High Performance Building fit into that?

Buildings are central to meeting the sustainability challenge as they consume over 70 percent of the electric power generated and 40 percent of primary energy, and are responsible for 40 percent of CO2 emissions from the energy services they require. Most of today’s buildings will still be in use in 2050, and developing countries will need to accommodate 2.4 billion new urban residents by 2050. Renewable energy technology alone cannot meet these requirements despite recent improvements. The energy performance of buildings must be managed, but the capability to meet the challenge exists today.

High performance buildings and the built environment deliver on the 2030 Agenda by promoting sustainable urban development and providing opportunity (equity), employment (jobs), resilience, and a long-term shared economy. Buildings are complex systems embedded in energy, communication, water, and mobility networks. Improving their performance will accelerate the sustainable energy transition by improving the efficiency with which buildings’ energy services are provided. Climate action is achieved by reducing the energy requirements of buildings to a point at which residual needs can be met by no- or low-carbon energy sources, by increasing carbon stored in buildings, and by reducing the carbon emissions embedded in the materials and systems in buildings. High performance buildings offer critical outcomes in terms of their energy and climate action (affordable and clean energy), resilience (affordability, weather disruptions in terms of heat, cold, and wind), health (good health and well-being, including both indoor and outdoor air), water (deluge, drought, contamination, sanitation), resource conservation (land use, materials, waste), mobility, and technology access.

This agenda engages the entire community that is the global supply chain for buildings.  Architects, building contractors, and engineers perfect building envelopes, getting the materials and design right and then ensuring precise construction techniques. Systems professionals deliver heating, ventilation, and air conditioning as well as other equipment. Energy suppliers can secure no- or low-carbon solutions to meet the systems’ needs. Energy can be provided on-site in a distributed energy model or through a network connection. Information and communications technology connects a building to its built environment, monitors the indoor environment and systems, and tracks materials to enable circularity. Urban planners coordinate the range of networks serving buildings (energy, communications, sanitation, water, mobility).

The International Centers of Excellence on High Performance Buildings (ICE-HPB) comprise a collaborative network of organizations focused on supporting their local industry in the rapid development of next generation of buildings consistent with United Nations Framework guidelines for energy efficiency standards in buildings. Centers provide education, training, and other critical resources to regional building industry practitioners, while sharing these resources globally through collaboration with other network participants. Their mission is to advance the rapid transition to high performance buildings, locally and around the world, in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Accord, while fostering a thriving building industry that creates healthy, comfortable, and sustainable buildings everywhere for everyone.

The International Centers of Excellence on High Performance Buildings work to disseminate UNECE’s guidelines; engage dialogue among industry leaders to identify challenges, share best practices and build a growing and diverse community of practice; gather and disseminate knowledge, including education/training, exhibits, case studies, research, demonstrations, and the production of industry focused print and on-line resources; catalyze design and construction industry tools and training development, and identify potential barriers to adoption and implementation; and foster public demand and support for best practices through recognition and awards, open houses and tours, public events, and demonstrations.

If Member States make these commitments at COP26, what  are the next priorities?

UNECE’s High Performance Buildings Initiative (HPBI) is conceived to disseminate and deploy framework guidelines for energy efficiency standards in buildings worldwide.  The initiative focuses on capacity development and impact in the field developing:

  • the intellectual, material and financial resources to educate, advocate and advise for transformation to high performance buildings
  • the outreach required to create a worldwide urban shift to truly sustainable buildings

The ultimate objective is to improve health and quality of life within the built environment while simultaneously decarbonizing building-related energy requirements, thus breaking the historic link between improved health, quality of life, and atmospheric carbonization.

HPBI comprises three pillars aimed at radical reduction of the global carbon footprint of buildings and dramatic improvement in the health and quality of life provided by buildings:

  • International Centers of Excellence that provide a) implementation-oriented education and assistance to building developers, contractors, architects, and engineers, as well as regulatory and planning officials and b) community-centric knowledge development and sharing, connecting with resources and accelerating uptake of high performance buildings.
  • Global Building Network, a consortium of universities that a) undertake research and advanced education in building materials, design, and construction for current and next generation architects, engineers, policy makers and other stakeholders and b) promote sustainable, high performance buildings worldwide in support of both the Guidelines and the UN International Centers of Excellence.
  • Case studies that demonstrate the application of the Framework Guidelines in countries around the world to demonstrate their validity in different climates, stages of development, and regulatory, legislative, and physical infrastructure, and that create a reference library to support training and education.

The Committee on Sustainable Energy has embraced the high performance buildings initiative in its strategic review for the coming years, and the Committee’s parent body, the Economic Commission for Europe, made the following request:

Noting that UNECE’s work on high performance buildings can have a notable near-term benefit for both climate and quality of life…

The Economic Commission for Europe requests its sectoral committees on Sustainable Energy and Urban Development, Housing and Land Management to undertake dissemination, education and research, consultation, and engagement among stakeholders on high performance buildings and to support member States in improving the performance of buildings.

With that level of support from member states, and with tightened commitments at COP26, we would anticipate rapid expansion of the network of centers of excellence, a significant uptick in the financial and policy support for the centers and their areas of activities, and closer engagement of local political bodies with the centers and other initiatives connected to the built environment. The same expansions would be expected for the institutions involved in the research and education agenda.

In terms of concrete outcomes, specific commitments to stretch KPIs would be appropriate, and these would be supported by relevant policy instruments (training, regulations, inspections, financing, etc.). The priority is to get measurable outcomes delivered within the next few years. Let’s show the world what can be achieved.

Why should local cities and communities care about COP26 commitments and the priority of high performance buildings? What role do they play in achieving these country commitments?

International or national commitments are important to the extent that they focus attention, marshal resources, and align behaviors, but the real action, particularly on buildings and the built environment, will take place at the community level. Done right, buildings can really improve quality of life from a number of angles – affordability, resilience, health, water, employment and innovation, social justice, etc. From that view, local cities and communities should care because they are the ones who will be the real change agents. 

Real action will take place at the community level

 

Going further – think globally act locally. No one locale will have all the answers, but each will try different solutions. Being able to compare track records and come back with ideas on what works (and why) and what does not work (and why not) means local cities and communities are the perfect proving grounds. Establishing global networks underpinned by principles that apply around the world will give us a strong head start on making real differences.

Finally, in discussing buildings and the built environment with a number of thought leaders recently, an important idea emerged that communities matter. Delivering community-level outcomes with community engagement and support will make all the difference in and around the world.

How can folks on the ground in Western Pennsylvania, or any other local region, support this international vision?

The challenges faced by communities in Western Pennsylvania are similar to challenges faced in other communities around the world. We may have a New York, a Moscow, or a Frankfurt in our midst, but they do not represent most communities in the world. Rather it will be cities like Pittsburgh that have greatest relevance. Size and regional footprint are therefore important. Even more critical is the post-industrial experience of Pittsburgh and the experience and lessons it can share that matter a lot in a world trying to find its way to a sustainable future. Finding a just transition that leaves no one behind is what we seek. Experience with data gathering and management, dealing with the social, environmental, and economic legacies of industries that have moved on, and the discovery process of identifying and deploying opportunity are the reasons why Western Pennsylvania matters so much. The benefits work in both directions, so the engagement with the UN’s community of communities will bring new perspectives and new approaches. These will be tailored to the needs of local communities, but will also be able to say: “Hey, look what they did” as a huge benefit. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and we really want to spread is not only the vision and the objectives, but also the specific approaches with significant investments in tomorrow.

 

Thank you, Scott, for sharing these important and critical details about this upcoming global summit with our audience. Click here or here to learn more about COP26, and click here to learn about the Greater Pittsburgh International Center of Excellence on High Performance Building.

 

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