‘We’ll always have Paris’: why the climate deal is transforming the built environment forever

Posted by Priva Lin on Feb 8, 2021 5:17:53 PM

Achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement calls for a pragmatic approach to the way we construct and use buildings.


After years of discussion the United Nations-originated Paris Agreement gave a welcome focus to the battle against climate change. Adopted by 196 countries in 2015 and implemented one year later, the legally-binding treaty calls for global warming to be limited to “well below” 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. Practical action should focus on the “global peaking” of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, so a climate neutral world can be achieved by 2050. (1)

One of the Paris Agreement’s greatest strengths is its clarity. For example, it breaks down its goals into five-year cycles and requires individual countries to submit their own detailed plans called NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions). It also establishes a framework for global cooperation in three primary areas – Finance, Capacity-Building and Technology.

Indeed, the importance of harnessing existing technologies and developing new ones is emphasized throughout the Paris Agreement. There are no prizes for guessing that the shift to renewables and climate technologies such as early warning systems and sea walls is going to be vital. But there is also recognition of the need to optimize ‘soft’ climate technologies, such as energy-efficient systems for buildings.

As the UNFCC website confirms, “understanding our climate technology needs is the starting point for effective action on climate change” (2). Given that building and construction account for 39% of all carbon emissions (3), it follows that an understanding of climate technology in buildings is hugely important. For this reason, in the five years since the Paris Agreement there has been a great effort to interpret its goals for the built environment.

Arguably the most important initiative to result from this process is an initiative called Advancing Net Zero. Developed by the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), its driving motivation is to “help deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement and tackle climate change” (4). With cooperation from individual country Green Building Councils, it aims to achieve this by achieving ‘net zero’ for all new buildings and major renovations by 2030 – to be followed by 100% of buildings by 2050.

Of course, it would be ideal for all buildings to draw all power from on-site renewables (‘net zero energy’). However, there is recognition that this won’t be possible in many cases. Therefore, the focus will also have to be on ‘net zero carbon’, with emissions reduced to zero through a combination of renewables, energy efficient technologies, and some carbon offsetting.

What this means in reality is that the entire life of the building has to be considered more carefully than ever before. The building itself needs to be placed at the heart of its energy story – something that Priva is supporting with the Lab for Innovation (Lin). As an incubator for new technology and software solutions, the Lab intends to make it easier for carbon-conscious businesses and the public sector to adopt smarter approaches to energy consumption.

There is no doubting the scale of the climate challenge ahead, but ultimately it’s not helpful to dwell for too long on the bigger picture. Far better instead to focus on defining specific actions and more manageable goals – and it could be that this pragmatic approach will be one of the greatest legacies of the Paris Agreement.

(1) https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement 
(2) https://unfccc.int/topics/climate-technology/the-big-picture/what-is-technology-development-and-transfer 
(3) https://www.worldgbc.org/worldgreenbuildingweek 
(4) https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/worldgbc-launches-groundbreaking-project-ensure-all-buildings-are-“net-zero”-2050 

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