The race to net zero

29 years. This is how long the construction industry has, at the very maximum, to reach net zero emissions.

The built environment is responsible for an astonishing 39% of global emissions. It is therefore imperative that the strict goals that have been set are met. If the industry does not reach carbon neutrality by 2050 the consequences on the environment would be disastrous as temperatures are foreseen to rise by 2°, potentially destroying entire ecosystems.

The true speed of improvement

Looking back at the progress that has been made in terms of impact reduction of the construction industry, the figures might be reassuring: the energy efficiency of residential and industrial buildings has increased by around 30% since 2000.

However, a deeper analysis of the evolution of the built environment shows how the technological improvements that have been made concerning energy efficiency are the only ones of a relevant enough magnitude to actually affect the industry.  

By looking at how different areas of the built environment contribute to the total sector’s pollution it is immediately clear how this is nothing but around half the problem. It is in fact the pollution attributable to the sourcing, processing and assembly of the materials that make up the buildings, and the construction process itself, that poses as the biggest drag dangerously slowing the race to net zero down.  

The impact of the construction processes has barely dropped at all as research on carbon smart materials has proceeded much slowlier since demand for such technologies never really rose.

Dichotomous approach

What further differentiates constructing and operating a building is the nature of the measures needed to reduce their respective footprint.

Making operating a building more carbon neutral is achieved by developing more energy efficient technologies. These, other than positively affecting the carbon footprint of operative buildings, increase their value by providing clients with cost effective solutions: if less energy is needed to maintain the building, the costs of operations naturally drop.

This virtuous cycle of direct advantages coming from technologic development in this field stimulated research and development of more and more energy efficient technologies, from heating to water distribution and touching all those processes that are necessary to the functionality of a building. This lead to an increase of offer in this sector, which, together with a series of policies pushing in this direction and the economic advantages linked to them, made it more natural to adopt these solutions.

On the other hand, the efforts to decarbonize construction processes are of another magnitude. Not only the availability of carbon smart materials is very limited, but also the few options present on the market have much higher costs than “traditional” materials and techniques. Furthermore having a greener supply side does not pose any direct advantage for neither the client nor the constructor itself.

What history has to say

There are innumerable examples in history in which a specific industry faced the possibility of shifting towards technically more advanced options. Although this may look like the only reasonable path to take, there are examples that show how it actually may not be.

An eloquent example is that of the lightbulb.

Patented in 1879 by Thomas Edison in the form of an incandescent lamp, it was very soon distributed on a very large scale. Although it was a revolutionary invention under several points of view, it had its flaws: out of all the energy that it was supplied with, only 10% was converted to light. The remaining 90% was given off as heat.

In the 1930s a new technology that allowed to produce light more efficiently was developed: the first fluorescent linear lamps were born.

Even though it lasted longer and was three times more efficient then its incandescent counterpart, it wasn’t until 1976 that, after an oil crisis pressured the industry to research energy efficient solutions, fluorescent bulbs for residential use were invented.

Even at this point, fluorescent lightbulbs did not hit the market: the production cost was too high compared to that of incandescent lamps. It was only in the 1980s that they were first commercialized.

What is most descriptive of what is slowing the decarbonization of the built environment though,  isn’t the fact that it took 50 years to transition to a much more efficient technology. Or that it took the intervention of the US Energy Department in the form of a Lighting Prize Competition to spur the development of viable LED lightbulbs (even more efficient than fluorescent lights).

It is the fact that, in 1924, when research on improving the lifespan of lightbulbs had brought them to last for an average of 2500 hours, the biggest lightbulbs productors got together in Geneva and came to an agreement. They concorded that the life of a lightbulb couldn’t be longer than 1000 hours. They all then reverted the research process in order to bring the lifespan to the agreed length. Producing more poorly performing lightbulbs turned out to be beneficial for the revenue of these companies, as their sales significantly increased.

What will it take to win the race?

These episodes altogether show how a market, if left alone with its internal dynamics, is not going to move in a direction that, however better it may be on the grand scale of things, is not convenient for the actors.

In fact, it took the pressure of an oil crisis or the intervention of a third party and governments for more efficient lightbulbs to appear on the market. While, when the industry was left at the mercy of its internal dynamics, efficiency was naturally sacrificed in favour of an economically more convenient solution.

Although potentially more natural for an industry, the last scenario is not viable given the urgency with which the built environment must be decarbonized.

In order for the built environment to complete the race to net zero, external pressure has to be put on the industry in the form of incentives first, and policies and regulation then. This way  the same results as those pushed by the oil crisis or by the US Energy Department can be obtained and the construction industry can have its necessary “lightbulb moment”.