I’m worried. I’ve read the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change’s (U.N. IPCC) sixth assessment report and it isn’t pretty. Even when we shut down much of the world’s economy due to the pandemic in 2020, we couldn’t achieve the emissions reductions needed to get us on the trajectory to a 1.5oC rise (or even to 2oC). The U.N. IPCC report stated, “Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions occur in the coming decades.” It also reported that it is “virtually certain that human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”
Cover image: The Greenland ice sheet contains enough water to raise global sea levels by 7.5m (23 ft) and is melting faster than anticipated, passing the tipping point of irreversibility. Credit: Andre Boysen on Unsplash
For those who need further convincing, the report underscored, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.” Models that only assume natural solar and volcanic influences on climate are unable to predict the scale of warming and the speed of change we have seen over the past century.
Last month, in a presentation at the Brookings Institute’s fall conference, Michael Greenstone, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, stated he believes it is very unlikely the planet will keep to a 2oC warming and “if it does, it is daunting the amount of emissions reductions that are going to be required.”
It’s even worse than we think
A recent presentation by, and follow-up conversation with, Sir David King, my former PhD advisor at the University of Cambridge back in the 1990s, reinforced the gravity of the situation. Since leaving his chair in the department of chemistry, King has been active in addressing climate change at the international level. He is the former chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government, the U.K. foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, and the founder and chair of the Center for Climate Repair and the Climate Crisis Advisory Group.
King highlighted the foremost challenge is addressing the accelerated warming of the Arctic Circle region, where the loss of ice covering the Arctic Sea now has receded more rapidly than originally predicted. Whereas an ice sheet is an efficient solar reflector, the water created by melted ice in the Arctic summer absorbs solar energy very efficiently (80-90%). In turn, this absorption increases the temperature of the region further, which then causes more ice to melt to form absorbing water, and so on in a continuous positive feedback loop.
“During the Arctic summer, roughly 50% of the Arctic Sea is now exposed to sunlight,” said King. “The Arctic region is now about 3.5oC above pre-industrial levels,” which he cautioned, “is a point that we all said many years ago that we should never reach in any region of the planet.” As a reference, the whole planet is 1.25oC above pre-industrial levels, illustrating how much warmer it now is in the Arctic region.
Because the North Pole is now warmer than the surrounding Arctic Circle, the polar vortex, which historically has been circular and kept cold air around the pole, has become more distorted and is “meandering.” This distortion drives strange weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere; witness the unprecedented cold weather in Texas earlier this year. But this isn’t the biggest issue.
It all hinges on Greenland
The biggest and most immediate risk is what happens to Greenland. Over 80% of Greenland is covered by a thick sheet of ice – enough to raise global sea levels by 7.5m (23ft) if it all melted. Because of warming in the Arctic, there has been more rapid than expected Greenland ice loss.
King explained, when ice melts in Greenland it forms lakes, which get bluer and absorb more sunlight the deeper they get. So, the impending catastrophe is a faster than anticipated rise in sea levels globally, causing weather disasters around the world with vast areas of the globe expected to be uninhabitable by mid-century. Southeast Asia will be most impacted. For example, most of Vietnam, Bangladesh, and the major cities of Calcutta, Mumbai, Jakarta, Shanghai would be under water, resulting in major loss of global rice production and hundreds of millions of climate refugees. North America will not be immune. Large areas of coastline will be lost and major cities impacted, especially in Florida. Sea levels are expected to rise in Miami by almost 2 feet by 2050 and by 6 feet by 2100, displacing a third of current residents (880,000) and making much of the city uninhabitable.
Immediate action is required
In a recent article he co-wrote with Jane Lichtenstein, they summarized “three things we must do now to stabilize the planet:”
- Reduce emissions more rapidly and more deeply
- Remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to return to pre-industrial levels by creating new sinks to permanently sequester CO2
- Repair the planet
King stated, “We must reduce emissions far more quickly than we have been to date. We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. We need to remove the excess greenhouse gases that we have already put into the atmosphere that are creating this crisis today.” He believes it will take until the end of the century to bring down GHG levels to pre-industrial levels and that this is not nearly soon enough to avert the sea level rise issues caused by current GHG emissions.
King believes we have already passed the tipping point in the Arctic Circle’s ice melting and aggressive action to “refreeze” the Arctic Sea during the polar summer is needed to “buy time to manage the future.” He noted there are half a dozen different processes currently being evaluated and developed.
Business-as-usual construction is unsustainable
The 2019 U.N. Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction identified 39% of global carbon emissions are attributed to buildings, 28% of which is from building materials and construction processes. A key message conveyed is that “strong floor area and population expansions continue to raise buildings sector energy use; building envelopes and systems have not improved enough to offset this growth.”
The 2019 report concluded that the construction “sector is not on track with the level of climate action necessary” with building energy demand growing 1% from 2017, against a need to cut emissions by 8% per year (IEA World Energy Outlook 2019).
And it won’t get any easier. A previous 2017 U.N. Global Status Report projected 230 billion square metres of buildings will be added worldwide by 2060. This is an area equal to the entire current global building stock and, according to Architecture 2030, is the equivalent of adding one New York City to the planet every 34 days for the next 40 years.
We already have the technology
Since June, in a series of blogs for IGS (Part 1, Part 2, part 3) , my colleagues and I have summarized the state of business-as-usual in fenestration performance in commercial buildings across the globe. We have highlighted readily-available and proven high-performance fenestration systems and technologies that are not being globally adopted, even in what are considered advanced economies like the U.S. and Australia.
The U.S. Department of Energy has defined what it believes is necessary for a net zero window. We have the technology to get close to that performance today, and one can argue, it can be reached already. While there is plenty of technology yet to be developed, a large impact could be made by fully implementing the proven high-performance envelope products we have available today.
Climate change is a market failure
Emissions are not going to be reduced by free market forces. Economists have already concluded climate change is a failure of free markets because the negative impacts of emissions do not accrue to those who emit. Emitters will keep on emitting since there is no immediate negative financial consequence.
We won’t get there without interventions: Codes, regulations, incentives
Economists therefore believe interventions are needed to force reductions in emissions through public policy which change the economics of emitting. Building codes are a key part of this public policy, as is an assessment of the future cost of damages from climate change (the social cost of carbon) that can be used to determine the real cost of carbon emissions, and to analyze the impacts of climate-related public policy and of new innovations.
When the real cost of carbon is used to determine the economic payback of high-performance buildings, they are more likely to be built. Codes are a market leveler, setting a minimum performance in which all building owners must invest to deliver, and typically determine, business-as-usual construction. Market incentives, like tax credits, also can be used to change the economic attractiveness of investing in high-performance buildings.
We won’t achieve the needed emissions reductions without more rapid increases in the stringency of building codes and regulations, and creating more attractive market incentives.
What can we do?
Continuing with current business-as-usual won’t cut it. Incremental stringency increases in building codes won’t work. We need to support step changes in building codes and regulations that are well thought out to balance embodied carbon with operational carbon considerations. It also is important to be wary of unintended consequences of trading off energy efficiency with increased embodied carbon and/or service life reductions.
Extending building and building component service life needs to come to the forefront, which requires a different approach to façade product design. As Mic Patterson of the Façade Tectonics Institute has pointed out, we have added a lot of material to the building envelope in the quest for higher energy efficiency. This has added a lot of embodied carbon emissions, and challenges in extending lifetime due to poor maintainability, adaptability, upgradeability and recyclability, especially in curtainwall systems.
Joining Patterson at the Façade Tectonics Institute’s virtual Vitruvian Awards event in December, King will be laying out climate change situation with no punches pulled, and outlining what actions we can take both individually and collectively as a construction industry. If you want to learn more, please join us.
In the meantime, I will leave you with this quote from King’s article: “What we do in the next five years determines the viability of humanity’s future. Even if we narrow our aspirations to ‘survival,’ fixing on a timescale of 50 years or so, the challenges are daunting. Humanity deserves better. We know what to do…”
Helen Sanders, PhD, is a general manager at Technoform North America. She has 25 years of experience in glass technology and manufacturing, with expertise in functional coatings, insulating glass and thermal zone technologies for fenestration. She is the president of the Façade Tectonics Institute and a board member of the Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance (FGIA). She has a master’s degree in natural sciences and a doctorate in surface science from the University of Cambridge, England. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.