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Sustainable Living Q1 2022

Investing in better buildings is key to achieving net zero

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Patrick Jericho Santos

Atsuhito Oshima

Senior Policy Analyst, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Nearly 40% of global CO2 emissions come from our buildings. In large cities they account for nearly 70%. Our buildings may hold the key to achieving net zero.

Europe’s buildings contain more than 30,000km2 of floor space – an area comparable in size to Belgium. Much of it is old: about 65% of Europe’s residential buildings were constructed before the 1980s. Yet while we treasure the look and feel of many of our historic buildings, they could be costing the earth.

If we are to meet our climate ambitions, we must invest in making buildings greener and more efficient.

Europe’s surging energy prices remind us that there are other reasons to do so. In the UK, regulated fuel prices will rise by 50%, stretching the budgets of vulnerable households and raising the threat of fuel poverty.

Local leadership can make the difference

Our cities and regional leaders have an important role in greening our buildings. Subnational governments are familiar with local building stock, hold regeneration funds and enforce building and zoning regulations. Of the cities and regions that responded to the OECD Survey, 86% already have plans to improve energy efficiency in buildings.

If we are to meet our climate ambitions, we must invest in making buildings greener and more efficient. 

Setting the pace

Subnational governments directly own and manage many buildings – accounting for 20-30% of all non-residential building stock in countries such as France or Japan. Encouragingly, 95% of surveyed cities and regions have energy efficiency policies for their public buildings, 61% require higher energy efficiency than those demanded nationally and 27% call for net zero emissions. Many cities like Geneva and Vienna have started to require higher energy performance in public buildings and subsidised housing.

Collaboration is key

Yet there is a need for greater ambition. Only 65% of those surveyed apply building energy codes to existing buildings. Tackling the existing building stock will require all to act. Of surveyed cities and regions, 76% are working to engage citizens in the effort and more than half engage a variety of stakeholders including utilities, construction and architecture firms, academic institutions and non-profit organisations.

In the Netherlands, the national government has taken a multilevel governance approach to transform 1.5 million homes from gas to low-carbon heating by 2030. Municipalities are in charge of planning and coordination of pilot projects at the district level, while national and regional governments support them through knowledge sharing, financial support and regulations.

Greening the huge building stock is a daunting but necessary task. To succeed, we will need local leaders and governments to mobilise governments, citizens and firms. We need to start now.

Source: OECD (2022), Decarbonising Buildings in Cities and Regions

To find out more about Decarbonising Buildings, visit the OECD site.

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