Global energy demand dropped by an estimated 5% in 2020, leading to declines of 8% in oil demand, 7% in coal, and 3% in natural gas, resulting in a 7% drop in total energy-related CO2 emissions.
The contribution of renewables to the mix has actually increased slightly despite a 2% fall in global electricity demand and an 18% drop in energy investment, providing a positive environmental side to what was otherwise a challenging year for the human world. The reality is, however, that we cannot reproduce the unprecedented energy consumption characteristics of 2020. We will have to face the same dire environmental situation we were facing before the pandemic began, and our buildings remain key to the problem and the solution
“Despite a record drop in global emissions this year, the world is far from doing enough to put them into decisive decline,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. “The economic downturn has temporarily suppressed emissions, but low economic growth is not a low-emissions strategy – it is a strategy that would only serve to further impoverish the world’s most vulnerable populations. Only faster structural changes to the way we produce and consume energy can break the emissions trend for good. Governments have the capacity and the responsibility to take decisive actions to accelerate clean energy transitions and put the world on a path to reaching our climate goals, including net-zero emissions.”
Low economic growth is not a low-emissions strategy and with every financial crisis, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production have decreased, only to increase again a couple of years later, according to Peters et al., 2011. After the 2008 recession, a 1.4% decline in global CO2 emissions was seen in 2009 but followed by a record 5.9% increase in 2010 as economic recovery became the leading priority for countries around the world. All the positive environmental statistics we have seen for the past year will be reversed once the pandemic is over if we cannot address the fundamental issues of inefficient energy consumption and un-clean energy supply.
“Detailed new analysis shows that, if today’s energy infrastructure continues to operate as it has in the past, it would lock in by itself a temperature rise of 1.65 °C. All of today’s power plants, industrial plants, buildings, and vehicles will generate a certain level of future emissions if they continue to rely on unabated combustion of fossil fuels,” says Dr. Birol. “If all of these assets, as well as power plants currently under construction, were operated for similar lifetimes and in similar ways as in the past, they would still be emitting around 10 Gt of CO2 in 2050.”
Buildings and their construction together account for 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the United Nations Environment Program. However, as much as 30% of the energy consumed by the average building is wasted through inefficient equipment and practices, according to MIT research, making building energy waste the large and low-hanging fruit of the climate change challenge.
"Perhaps the most shocking thing about energy waste is that most of us don't even recognize it when we see it," commented Kelly Becker, Schneider Electric Zone President for UK & Ireland. "Nighttime cityscapes make beautiful images that are more likely to be hung as art on walls or downloaded as wallpaper on electronic devices than viewed as a depiction of energy waste. It's too easy to leave the office without switching the lights off, and this is just the one aspect of energy inefficiency that in the long run also costs businesses money and makes buildings less healthy and comfortable places to work in. As the economy reignites and people head back to the office in greater numbers, wouldn't it be incredible if we could avoid returning to previous levels of pollution and emissions, while also supporting better standards of public health?”
Public health is understandably the main priority of world governments and society as a whole right now, but if we lose sight of the environmental targets we were striving for before the pandemic, we risk falling further behind in our fight against climate change. Even during the height of the pandemic, empty commercial buildings shone bright with lights and whirred with the sound of HVAC systems that could not be shut down for long periods of zero occupancy. In the UK, energy use in commercial buildings dropped just 16% on average during lockdowns, and the worst 10% of buildings still used approximately 97% of their typical energy demand.
When we do return to our workplaces, energy consumption in commercial buildings will likely jump to higher levels than before the pandemic and break consumption-increase records as businesses and governments strive for economic recovery. Few companies will be in a financial situation that would allow them to invest heavily in energy-efficient technologies, preferring instead to direct their budgets towards occupant health and productivity enhancement, while governments will prioritize public health and economic policy over the environment. Without a clear intention to recognize the importance of climate change reduction and the feasibility of a green recovery after COVID, we will end up in a worse environmental situation than we started.
"Reducing energy waste doesn't always require lifestyle changes, large scale investment in infrastructure or development of new technologies, but it can make a huge difference to our carbon emissions,” says Becker. “It's too easy to leave the office or home without switching the lights off and investing in energy-saving measures frequently requires an upfront investment. Whilst the investment will pay for itself in the long run, many landlords, businesses, and individuals either can't access the money needed or would prefer to spend it elsewhere. If we are going to curb energy waste, we need tighter building standards on both new builds and existing building stock.”
As much as 82% of the potential means to reduce energy waste in buildings remains untapped, according to Schneider Electric. Due to their vast energy consumption, if we reduce energy consumption in just half of the world’s existing buildings by between 30-50%, and continue to electrify and decarbonize energy sources, we could halve global emissions by 2040.
Such significant reform in the ways buildings use and waste energy can only be brought about by forcing more progressive building standards on all buildings. So, despite the pandemic still raging, an economic downturn looming, and the world in crisis, we cannot afford to ignore the continuing impact of buildings on climate change.