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Construction, climate and the coronavirus

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What would be the outcome if climate measures were applied on construction with the same force as has been used in fighting the coronavirus? Here is an (imaginary) emergency plan.

The coronavirus has changed the everyday life of millions of people across the globe. Within weeks, many governments showed a remarkable capacity to react firmly and decisively. Schools, libraries, museums, cinemas and sports halls were closed and travelling limited. Companies switched into remote work and financial support packages were prepared for companies and taxpayers. Never before have we collectively taken such fast and robust action against a global threat.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the response to climate change. Despite all of the global commitments, the emissions are rising and we are heading towards an overshoot of over 30 gigatonnes of CO2e by 2030. That has many serious feedbacks, such as accelerated melting of arctic permafrost and the release of methane as a consequence, which is a substantially more aggressive greenhouse gas than CO2. This, in turn, could put us on a roller-coaster ride to an unpredictable climate catastrophe.

The impacts of such global change would most likely be significantly harder than the ongoing corona pandemic. The difference between a 1.5-degree warmer and 2-degree warmer planet is estimated to lead to the loss of hundreds of millions of lives and approximately 20 trillion dollars lost.

The reaction to the pandemic is seen all around us in both in public spaces and buildings that have been temporarily closed. What we do not yet see (but definitely should) are similar measures for mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from the built environment. Buildings, infrastructure and their use consume half of the global raw materials and cause one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. The predicted increase in the consumption of cement, steel, aluminium and plastics would lead into double the amount of emissions that we can afford to release if we wish to limit the global warming to 1.5 degrees.

As construction is so fundamentally linked to climate change, why haven’t the governments taken more robust measures? What would be the outcome if climate measures were applied on buildings with the same force as has been used in fighting the coronavirus?

Here is an imaginary emergency plan that exemplifies how such strict measures could look like:

  1. Introduce carbon caps for all buildings and infrastructure works.
  2. Stop new construction in regions where the population does not increase. Focus on repair and refurbishment instead.
  3. Issue taxes on inefficiently used buildings.
  4. Set minimum technical service lives for buildings.
  5. Use renewable and recycled construction materials as the first option.
  6. Limit the use of emission-intensive building materials like conventional types of cement, metals and plastics.
  7. Turn buildings into carbon banks for example remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it into bio-based building materials.

So, at which point in that list did you shake your head? Which of these exemplary measures would feel too harsh for the free market economy? Carrying out the list above would perhaps be politically challenging and it would change many value chains in the construction and real estate business. It would also get unpleasantly close to compromising our perceived right to build and profit from the built environment; yet, without a strong and rapid reaction in the construction sector, we are dangerously close to missing our chance of halting  global warming at 1.5 degrees.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that we can collectively react to global threats, and there is still some time to respond to climate change.

This leads to the casting of the future-defining chapter of humankind. Like in the clichés of old Western movies, now would be the time for the cavalry to enter the scene. In the ongoing climate story, however, it seems that construction professionals should be the cavalry but all of the above-listed goals can already be achieved through well-thought-out building design. So let´s change the script, shall we?

Matti Kuittinen

Matti Kuittinen is Adjunct Professor of Resource-efficient Construction at Aalto University’s Department of Architecture.

We are in a race against time: The UN Sustainable Development Goals must be achieved within 10 years. Aalto University’s Designs for a Cooler Planet event at Helsinki Design Week 2020 will showcase inspiring scenarios for the future in September at its Otaniemi campus. Collaboration between designers, researchers and stakeholders will lead to better solutions for people and the environment.

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