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Paving the way to zero-carbon cities through building codes

Urban areas are growing rapidly — but green policies can build them to last.

On Nov. 14, Chicago will welcome nearly 20,000 Greenbuild attendees from the architecture, commercial development, academia and advocacy communities. The ideas elevated and generated during this conference have the potential to deliver greater health and wellbeing around the globe at a time when we stand at a critical crossroads in our efforts to combat climate change. Being at the helm of an industry-leading manufacturing company and managing sustainability for the third-largest American city are very different roles. Yet, our experiences are united in a common truth: construction of tall skyscrapers and buildings is expanding from Accra to Zurich; and, global cities provide some of the most important catalysts for change related to sustainable built environments.

Consider this: the global urban population is projected to increase by 2.5 billion people and global building square footage is expected to double by 2050.

Buildings today are responsible for more than a third of global energy use. Nearly 50 percent of urban greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings; this exceeds 70 percent in many mature cities, including New York City, Chicago and London. We know the impending global construction boom will increase urban energy use and emissions.

Building codes and standards serve an integral role in shaping the cities and towns where we live and work. They also can help guide the cities and the nations we call home toward a more sustainable and economically vibrant future. However, in many places likely to see increased construction, building codes are not in place.

What role can codes play?

Throughout history, building codes have regulated the health and safety of the people and property inside buildings and held builders accountable for the quality of their work. In recent decades, these specifications have evolved into a number of minimum standards, including codes with a focus on energy efficiency. The most up-to-date energy codes can reduce a building’s energy consumption up to 70 percent compared with a similar base-case building. 

The most up-to-date energy codes can reduce a building’s energy consumption up to 70 percent compared with a similar base-case building.
In addition to the environmental impact, cutting-edge building codes can generate significant energy savings. It is estimated that $126 billion could be saved from reduced energy use in the United States from 2010 to 2040. Green construction also can serve as a major economic driver in cities: low-carbon buildings in the United States accounted for 3.9 million jobs between 2015 and 2018.

Over the next 40 years, 100 billion square meters of floor space will be built in locations that do not have codes, and retrofits of existing buildings are not happening quickly enough. In order to create change in our economic, energy and transportation systems, we need urgent and widespread adoption, and ongoing enforcement.

Where do we go from here?

From the Paris Agreement to the Global Climate Action Summit, there is a growing global consensus on the need for low-carbon buildings and leadership from cities. A recent report, published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs with support from USG Corporation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, looked at 10 global cities. All incorporated action on buildings codes as part of a larger vision for a thriving, low-carbon city. A consistent set of principles emerged to shape the work of cities along with their partners throughout government, the private sector and nonprofit sector. 

  • Priorities for established markets include faster retrofit cycles and increased energy-efficiency requirements for existing buildings, zero-carbon energy codes for new construction and a transition to an all-electric future.
  • In middle-income markets, the primary challenge is to quickly develop and implement energy codes for new construction while fostering energy-efficiency improvements in appliances and increases in local capacity for code enforcement.
  • Developing markets need to create base energy codes to avoid locking in decades of high carbon usage in new construction and to address concerns about access to modern energy sources.
Building codes are a foundation for change. An established set of principles is needed to frame the work of city officials and their public, private and nonprofit partners to shape a safer and more sustainable future for our economy and our health. It is our hope that the Greenbuild conference will lead to a better understanding of how we can meet the needs of rapidly growing cities and address the very real effects of climate change.

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