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Sustainability: A Look Ahead

by Matt Higgins, CxA, CEM, HBDP, LEED AP BD+C

The sustainability industry is focused on climate and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions more than ever before, placing a particular emphasis on Environmental and Social Governance (ESG). Much of this refocusing can be attributed to progressively unpredictable “severe-weather events” that have resulted in not only a significant loss of life and property damage but steady increases in the average global surface temperature, as well. Weather stations, such as the ones that research use or that could be found on websites similar to https://kestrelmet.com are consistently indicating a long term dramatic change in the earth’s climate. While many governmental and industry groups across the globe have begun to create more meaningful ESG plans to address these concerns, these plans are typically limited in scope and related to specific supply-chain and operational resiliency.

Geo-political motivations are often viewed as a contributing factor to blame for having no clear-cut global guidelines for ESG planning and reporting. As such, the Group of Seven (G7) countries of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US are not on the same page:

  • The US target is a 52% reduction of 2005 GHG levels by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.
  • The EU target is a 55% reduction of 1990’s GHG by 2030.
  • Canada plans to cut emissions by at least 40-45% of the 2005 baseline levels by 2030, up from the previous target of 30%.
  • Japan plans to cut emissions by at least 46% by 2030 and will need to eliminate about 500 MtCO2e to do so.
  • The United Nations (UN) Paris Agreement of 2015 legally bound participating countries to prevent the average global surface temperature from rising more than 1.5 C. (34.7 F.) higher than the pre-Industrial Revolution levels before the Industrial Revolution. 

While disconnects among the G7 are concerning, so is the UN’s 26th Conference of Parties (COP26)’s 2021 revision of the above provisions) that prevents a 2 C. increase of average global surface temperature compared to a pre-industrialized temperature (equal to 35.6 F.). This revised goal is seen by critics as an iteration of the metaphor “kicking the can down the road” by another 0.5 C, as more of an acceptance that climate change has advanced so much since 2015 that we cannot achieve the previous goal than a productive adjustment.

  • The average global surface temperature in 1880 was believed to be near -0.16 C. (31.7 F.) and in 2020 the average global surface temperature was 1.8 C. (35.24 F.).
  • Temperatures have risen 1.1-1.3 C. (34.0-34.34 F.) since global industrialization, an increase of 3.5 F. from pre-industrialization temperatures.
  • Recent articles by the Economist summarize that there is a 50% chance of keeping warming below 2.1 C. (35.78 F.) but only a 5% chance of keeping under 1.5 C. (34.7 F.).

Sustainability advocates suggest that the six years of inaction and “individualism” approaches to the global climate have warmed the earth. An October 2021 article by the Economist has indicated that current siloed policies will lead to a 2.9 C. rise in global average temperature (graphic below), which aligns with statements by nonpartisan entities like the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the World Resources Institute.

 graph from The Economist (Oct. 2021)

With a renewed global priority to prevent severe-weather events and their associated effects, reputable global research bodies such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) have assembled emissions data sorted by industry and country. In 2021, the IEA attributed the majority of GHG emissions to electricity production – and the heat (steam) associated with it- followed by emissions from the manufacturing/industry, transportation, then buildings.

IEA Net-Zero by 2050 Guideline https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050

This information allows for transparent, global, fact-based perspectives and a much-needed tool for guiding cities, states, and regional governments toward a 2050-based GHG reduction plan. With non-partisan, objective information like this available, laws can consequently be written to enact meaningful change in sectors where the biggest impact is being realized. One such example is the New Mexico Energy Transition Act (NM SB 489-2019), which “imposes ‘zero carbon’ electricity standards on NM Public Utilities by 2045. The bill also ramps up interim renewables targets, including 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2040.”

The New Mexico legislature also passed the Climate Solutions Act (HB 9-2021), which calls for a 50% reduction in the 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, as well as net-zero emissions by 2050 for State buildings. It also calls for a 60 percent reduction in methane, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. While designers and engineers of the built environment do not typically participate in all the sustainability initiatives that are needed to attain these reductions, firms like EEA can directly affect Scope 1 emissions in a big way.

Wondering if your building or project is up to speed with these projections? Contact us for no-cost assessment here: http://www.buildingperformanceoutlook.com/