The way we build our cities now will determine future emissions. Read Laura Puttkamer’s insight report from COP28 on the role of cities in battling climate change.
„Build with breeze, build with ease, build for smartness, build for net zero,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), on December 6th, Human Settlements Day at COP28 in Dubai. This key message marked the official launch of the Buildings Breakthrough Initiative, which aims at making net-zero and resilient buildings the new standard by 2030.
“The way we build our cities now will determine future emissions. Housing and buildings are at the core of resilience,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, UN-Habitat’s Executive Director, and underlined the importance of cities when it comes to climate change. At COP28, cities and local governments are taking centre stage to discuss multi-level collaboration, and innovative urban, hands-on solutions to the high CO2 emissions from the built environment.
Making Zero-emission Resilient Buildings the New Normal
Notably, the Buildings Breakthrough Initiative was launched. It serves as an action-oriented response to the Global Stocktake at COP28, which unsurprisingly shows that there is still much to do in order to keep the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement alive. The global initiative comprises 28 members covering over 70 per cent of the global GDP and more than half of the world’s population. The participating world leaders agree to review progress annually and explore priority international actions for a Building Breakthrough.
The goal of the Buildings Breakthrough Initiative is to make near-zero emission and resilient buildings the new normal by 2030. The initiative is co-led by France and the Kingdom of Morocco, coordinated under the umbrella of UNEP, and hosted by the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (Global ABC). In March 2024, the next meeting will take place in Paris, where members will dive deeper into action plans, convening the relevant ministers in charge.
Prioritise Renovation, Reuse, and Repurposing
High CO2 emissions in the built environment also represent a high potential for climate solutions. According to Inger Andersen, better recycling and reuse of materials could reduce emissions by 75 per cent in the construction sector. “Don’t tear down the old. Instead, be smart and prioritise renovation, reuse, and repurposing over new builds,” she urged. By shifting to ethical and bio-based materials where we can, including timber, bamboo, and biomass, it might be possible to lower emissions up to 45 per cent by 2050 in some places.
“Nature can help us with a couple of degrees by shading and cooling. And improved building processes are also really good for our economies, creating jobs, and boosting the GDP. We know what is the right thing to do, and we all know what it is like to go into an overheated building made from concrete and steel. That’s madness! Build with ease, build with breeze, build with smartness, build for net zero.”
Participants from the private sector agree and urge for more investment. For example, Jamie Ferguson, Global Director of Climate Business at the IFC, the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, recommends using EDGE green building certificates to create a global standard in sustainable construction and housing. He cited recent reports showing the potential of green construction, which could be worth trillions of dollars. “Every one dollar invested in climate resilience can save four dollars in recovery costs,” he said, underlining the importance of resilient construction.
Achieving Urban Resilience and Community Engagement
The Human Settlements Day at the COP28 finished with an event by the Cities Alliance that focused on sustainable construction and how to make the Just Transition affordable. Considering that half of the expected growth in cities will happen in the informal sector, especially in African countries, there is a pressing need to include the urban poor in the debate. Already, vulnerable and marginalised groups bear the brunt of the environmental and social cost of climate change. So, what does the global building breakthrough mean for informal settlements and incremental building?
Discussing entry points such as secure land tenure, inclusive policy regulations, community leadership, and incremental building with sustainable local materials, Cities Alliance emphasised the importance of affordability, sustainability, desirability, scalability, and inclusivity in the construction sector. Frameworks such as the circular economy and the Just Transition will help to address the urgent challenges of urbanisation in an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive manner. And by growing to scale and looking at local value chains, there are large economic advantages to be achieved, too. However, the most important part remains: listening to the urban poor, involving them in the planning process, and creating opportunities for a truly Just Transition.
Carmen Vogt, head of the section Cities at GIZ, described the Cities Adapt project that works on small and medium-sized projects in Mexico and South Africa with nature-based, pro-poor solutions and model projects for upscaling. In addition, she presented Eco Kiln technology that GIZ supports in Malawi, where up to 3.5 billion bricks a year will be produced sustainably to support the construction of 100,000 new homes per year.
Jonathan Duwyn from the Global ABC then described an avoid-shift-improve approach to sustainable construction in informal settlements, but also in other urban settings. By avoiding the use of too many polluting materials, shifting to bio-based and hybrid materials that embody less carbon, and improving circular approaches in not just building operations, but also material procurement and construction, the building breakthrough will be possible.
“We have one chance of getting sustainable construction on the agenda, let’s make it count” – with these last words from Jonathan Duwyn, Human Settlements Day came to an end.
Another example is the successful implementation of inclusive planning by Indore’s municipal corporation. This approach involves local communities in shaping neighbourhood plans, which has led to improvements in access to services, infrastructure development, and community engagement, showcasing the potential of equitable planning for sustainable cities.
In conclusion, the future of Indian cities depends on effective policymaking and planning, that addresses power dynamics and the equitable distribution of resources. Prioritising inclusivity and actively involving communities in decision-making processes is the path towards fostering urban environments that are both more equitable and sustainable.