"History will remember this day," said Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, moments after a green, leaf-shaped gavel was dropped on the most ambitious, far-reaching deal on addressing climate change that the world has ever seen – United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21).
Perhaps the event’s most encouraging element was the large number of CEOs of Fortune 500 firms voicing their encouragement and support for an agreement that, in their estimation, will serve as a catalyst for unlocking billions of dollars of investment in a clean-energy economy.
While there continue to be opponents who predict that achieving the agreed upon targets for carbon emission reductions will have a negative impact on the global economy, it is clear that they are in the minority and are contradicting what business leaders across a broad spectrum of industries are saying about the economic impact.
The Smart City
The agreement commits its 196 signatories to cut emissions and report progress on a national level. However, at least one-third of the carbon budget remaining to stay under 2 degrees Celsius is in the control of cities and local governments, and everyone at COP21 seemed to know it. Session after session attempted to thrash out frameworks to make climate action at city and regional levels more viable.
Talks ended over the weekend with more than 7,000 cities and regions committed to slashing carbon emissions through their own local actions, according to the UN. Collectively, these communities represent a fifth of the world’s population. The status of cities as a vehicle to reduce emissions has been growing in recent years and was evident at the summit in Paris.
C40 Cities, a decade-old climate leadership group representing 82 of the world’s largest cities, came to Paris with a new report establishing a systematic framework for understanding the obstacles to city-level climate action.
The EU-based Covenant of Mayors, another climate action initiative for cities and regions, has extended its signatories far beyond Europe, as testified to by the geographically diverse panel of its COP21 side event. A Global Alliance for Building and Construction intended to help pilot the construction industry’s efforts to restrict warming to below 2 degrees Celsius is an initiative likely to have a major effect on cities.
Not only are these networks growing, they are also collaborating more. At COP21, the Compact of Mayors and the Covenant of Mayors announced a new partnership. The collaboration holds the potential to further progress on creating effective global standards for measuring progress. A campaign led by C40 to increase the number of low-emission electric buses on city streets. By recruiting 24 cities to commit to buying a combined 40,000 new electric buses by 2020, the coalition was able to negotiate a promise from bus manufacturers to lower the price of the buses and meet the market demand.
A report from the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance released during the talks highlighted the importance of getting more money transferred to cities from central governments and creating better frameworks for understanding the costs that cities could face as the planet warms. The alliance also recommended increased support for local financial institutions and urban lab networks to explore innovative funding models.,/p>
Smart technology is central to the future growth of cities, be that through top-down systems or citizen driven smart development, city alliances and green intentions at the conference can only leave us optimistic on the growth of the Smart City.
The Smart Building
Buildings are fundamental to cities and, making up 40% of total energy demand, are key to the climate change debate. The latest figures from the UN predict that the world’s population is going to grow from 7.3bn to 8.5bn by 2030, with almost all of this growth taking place in urban areas. This will naturally increase the need for buildings to provide places to live, work and study for this growing population. This is leading to a growth in the global building stock by a staggering 24% between 2013 and 2023 alone.
Typical contracting methods favour the lowest bidder. If the building sector continues to operate this way, we cannot expect the built environment to make gains in efficiency. Energy efficiency adds upfront costs during construction, even though it’s highly profitable in the long term. The key message from COP21 was “those who choose to build efficiently position themselves as contributors to a better world, both environmentally and economically”.
The environmental impact of buildings and the necessity for sustainable design were key questions being addressed at the COP21. In the build up to the summit, the United Nations recognised that building stock is one of the most economically advantageous avenues for reducing global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Consequently, and in line with the launch of Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, the fourth day of the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris was named Buildings Day. Hosted by the World Green Building Council with the help of UNEP and other partners, the sector aims to scale up attempts to de-carbonise. During the event, the World Green Building Council gave a statement to bring about ‘global market transformation’ which plans to achieve ‘net zero greenhouse – gas emissions’ as well as energy efficiency retrofit of existing stock by 2050.
Buildings Day was marked by widespread understanding that green buildings are at the core of climate action, with potential to drive significant reductions both short and long-term. As Marcene Broadwater of IFC put it, “building green now prevents 80 years of future over-consumption”.
Buildings Day began with a call to action as Minister Glen Murray of Ontario asserted the need to “rapidly deploy technology to buildings and to get it right, because we can’t go back again and again. We know we must employ energy efficiency and clean energy together, by first saving energy, and then, for the energy we can’t save, making it green”. Sandrine Dickson-DeCleve of the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group asked in the morning session, “If everyone says that this is the low-hanging fruit, why the hell aren’t we there?” Or, as Pierre-Andre Chalendar, CEO of USGBC member company Saint-Gobain, said more delicately in the afternoon, "We know how to make buildings that don’t use energy; the issue is, why don’t we?"
Interestingly, private sector actors expressed the need for a strong government role, with codes, incentives and policies that are specific in context to help make our buildings what people want: better places to work, more comfortable homes, and places that support health for our children’s children.
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The Path Forward
The information and system intelligence and analytics capabilities enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT) are central to smart buildings. Reducing energy consumption in buildings is epitomised by The Transformation of BAS into the Building Internet of Things, explored in a recent Memoori report. Smart Buildings can work alongside a Smart Grid, energy storage and a raft of green technologies to light a path forward for a lower carbon future.
Critics say that a sleep-deprived group of negotiators coming to agreement doesn't mean promises will be fulfilled and emissions curtailed. That the grandstanding of world leaders who didn't want to be left out of a good party may mean little when it comes to changes in domestic policy. In Britain, for example, despite Cameron's stirring words on the opening days of the conference, the government is axing subsidies for renewable energy, energetically pursuing fossil-fuel extraction and ditching investment in carbon-capture-and-storage technology.
Yet, even if the Paris Agreement is simply 'gesture politics', these gestures are not meaningless. The talks were the last chance for the UN process on resolving climate change, and their success is significant. Also, the mandate provided by a consensus of almost every nation in the world will make it very hard for opponents of climate action to get their arguments heard.
Furthermore, the deal represents, perhaps for the first time, the entire world speaking with one voice. The Paris agreement marks a victory, not only for the environment, but also for the cooperation, peace and goodwill needed for this global movement to reduce climate change alongside sustainable economics.
Full text of the COP21 Climate agreement: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf