Knowledge gaps hinder energy-efficient building transition

Technology to deliver "dramatic" cuts in emissions already exists, but knowledge gaps and old habits mean progress in being made "at a snail's pace," argues the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in a new report.

Energy savings in buildings could deliver larger CO2 cuts than the entire emissions of the transport sector based on 2050 projections, says the global business association in the latest progress report for its 'Energy Efficiency in Buildings' project. 

The European Council has identified the rapid pace of new construction in developing countries as an opportunity to introduce standards for lowering CO2 emissions in the sector, but also stresses that developed countries must refurbish their existing stock to lower energy consumption.

WBCSD concludes that building professionals' misjudgement of costs and benefits represents a major obstacle to the project's goal of having all new buildings consume zero net energy from external power supplies and producing zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. "They seriously over-estimate the cost of achieving energy efficiency and underestimate the potential to reduce emissions," it says.

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To overcome such barriers, business recommends taking a holistic design approach, encouraging integration and responsibility-sharing across different sectors and actors involved in the value chain of the construction process. Ensuring that energy is better valued by such actors would serve as an incentive to move towards more efficiency, as buildings are nowadays more of a financial than functional product, it says.

The WBCSD argues that changes to individual behaviour are essential to supporting more energy efficiency, on the part of both building professionals and users. Energy is taken for granted in developed countries, which leads to "thoughtless waste", while developing countries often consider its use as a status symbol, it says, concluding that the challenge will be raising awareness to change consumption patterns permanently.

The Energy Efficiency in Buildings project was set up in 2006 and will publish its final report early next year. It will call for "radical measures", and explore implications for both government and business. The findings will be used to develop a manifesto to raise awareness and call for political action.

Greening buildings is a timely issue. The European Commission recently presented a proposal to extend the scope of the 2002 Energy Performance of Buildings Directive by eliminating the current 1000m2 threshold required for buildings undergoing a major renovation to meet specific efficiency standards. It is hoped that the revision will generate 5—6% energy savings in the EU by 2020. The Commission has also promised to launch a "Build-up" initiative in 2009, increasing "the awareness of the whole chain from authorities to the construction industry and citizens on the saving opportunities".

Developing countries in particular could make huge savings by investing in more energy-efficient buildings, according to a recent report published by McKinsey. The management consulting firm argued that sizeable investments in new capital stock made as a result of rapid economic growth in these countries offer an opportunity to "lock in lower energy consumption for decades to come" by building at the optimal level of energy efficiency.

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