June 30, 2023

How the Built Environment Sector Can Transition to Net Zero

Discover how the built environment plays a crucial role in achieving net zero, the importance of supply chains, and how both embodied and operational emissions can be reduced.

Amer Taleb
How the Built Environment Sector Can Transition to Net Zero

Depending on how you measure it, there’s a single industry that generates about 40 percent of global emissions. The built environment—which includes everything from our homes to bridges and the offices we work in—could be one of the most significant pieces in solving the net zero puzzle.    

In fact, the importance of finding sustainable solutions within this sector will only increase as the global population grows and urbanization expands. Earlier this year, our co-founder Marc Allen gave a talk at the Singapore Green Building Council on the topic. Here, we’ve collected and organized the most critical points highlighted within his talk. 

The first step: measuring the problem 

Measuring emissions can be extremely complex. This is especially true when we talk about Scope 3, which are the emissions indirectly linked to your business operations. Sifting through company data and plucking out what’s relevant from a numerical haystack is difficult, and a big reason that many companies end up relying on industry averages when calculating their environmental impact.

Though it’s certainly a step in the right direction, there’s still a large, qualitative gap between this approach, and one that uses primary granular data to generate actionable insights. The more clearly we can identify and draw an outline around our carbon footprint, the more easily we can take steps to reshape and lessen its impact.  

Explore how Unravel Carbon can help companies in the built environment sector lower their emissions.

Embodied and operational emissions

Within the built environment, two types of emissions hold significant importance: embodied and operational. Embodied emissions are connected to a building’s construction and materials, while operational emissions arise from a structure’s ongoing use and energy consumption.

To reduce embodied emissions - where possible - it’s better to opt for renovating a building rather than demolishing and reconstructing it. When new construction is actually needed, having something called a “material passport” for the structure that’ll be torn down can make the entire process far more efficient. Essentially, it provides detailed information about the composition and origin of a building’s materials, which makes it easier to reuse and recycle these components into new projects. 

When it comes to addressing operational emissions, there’s a broad range of measures that include everything from better space heating and cooling to more eco-friendly water heating and pump systems. Since these sorts of things rely heavily on electricity, it’s essential for building owners to take electrical access within a structure into account and plan accordingly from the outset of a project.

Also, transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, can greatly reduce the carbon intensity of operational emissions. In addition, advancements in building automation and smart technology allows for more dynamic energy management and minimizes waste.  

Understanding supply chains

Next, it’s important to mention how vital a deep understanding of your supply chain is for lowering emissions. Within the built environment, this includes everything from the initial design to manufacturing and handling a building’s end-of-life. While architects, engineering companies and construction firms hold responsibility for Scope 1 and 2 emissions, it’s the building owner or developer that’s primarily accountable for taking stock of Scope 3 emissions. 

More than anything, it’s a mix of transparency and granular data that allows you to engage effectively with your supply chain. Also, due to the relatively fewer layers of suppliers in the built environment sector, obtaining highly precise information tends to be relatively accessible.

The goal of all this: to help building owners make better, data-driven decisions. In other words, with the right insights, it’s much easier to determine which people and organizations take decarbonization seriously, and that make the most sense to partner with. 

It’s by engaging with suppliers and contractors to encourage sustainable practices and reduce emissions that a ripple effect of positive change can begin to take shape. By setting clear sustainability requirements and promoting dialogue, companies can influence suppliers' behavior and motivate them to adopt greener processes and materials. This collaboration among stakeholders is key to driving sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.

At Unravel Carbon, we make it easy to request emissions and energy-related data from suppliers, which leads to more visibility within a company’s operations.

The Unravel Carbon Supplier Module

Working together

To really make a difference in combating climate change in the built environment, collaboration among stakeholders from all sectors is crucial. 

Businesses, including financial institutions, have the power to direct capital towards low-emission companies and prioritize investments with an environmental focus. In addition, civil society plays an integral role in catching blind spots, co-developing innovative solutions, and ensuring accountability for corporate targets.

Regulators are also critical in driving sustainability within this industry. By establishing robust regulations and frameworks, governments can incentivize emission reduction strategies, enforce energy efficiency standards, and promote sustainable building practices.  

This includes encouraging the adoption of green building certifications, such as LEED, BREEAM and the Green Mark (in Singapore), and implementing building codes that prioritize energy efficiency and renewable energy integration. 

By working together, we can create a future that is not only net-zero, but also climate-positive. It’ll require collective action, innovation, and a commitment to making low-carbon choices at every stage of construction and operation. While there’ll certainly be many challenges along the way, with concerted efforts, we can transform the built environment into a driving force for a more sustainable and resilient world.

Interested in learning more about how Unravel Carbon helps companies in the built environment sector reach their sustainability goals? Get in touch with us.

The full presentation

To see Marc’s presentation, check out the video here:

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