Within the industry, we talk a lot about the environment-saving potential of smart buildings. How our buildings are responsible for 40% of global energy consumption and 33% of greenhouse gas emissions, and how smart technology can be used to reduce that significant contribution to climate change. However, despite that unparalleled environmental impact, we rarely see mention of buildings in the public climate change debate, at least not relative to cars, waste, or fossil fuel extraction. Today we ask why the energy inefficiency of buildings is not a public symbol of climate change and what would happen if it was.
“It’s easy to see the impact of certain kinds of environmental problems —the exhaust coming from the tailpipe of the car in front of you or the smog surrounding a factory off the highway. But neither cars nor factories are the largest opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. Buildings are,” says Laurent Bataille, executive vice president of the Digital Energy Division at Schneider Electric. “Consumer behavior should change, but whatever individuals do, the building industry has to commit to act and achieve zero carbon by 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C and meet the goals set forth by the Paris Agreement.”
Consumer behavior should change, that is the only way to drive adoption of smart and energy-efficient building technologies. After a false start in the 1990s, electric car sales have been rising sharply in the last decade as all major car companies followed Tesla’s lead into a green transport revolution. Electric cars are even becoming smart, connected, and autonomous at a seemingly faster pace than buildings and this is coming about, in large part, due to significant green consumer attention on gas-guzzling motor vehicles. The reality, however, is that transport as a whole accounts for approximately 25% of energy consumption, versus 40% for buildings, and cars only account for a portion of that transport sector.
There are many ways to slice bread, of course, and how you divide buildings from industry or account for the buildings in the transport sector is not an exact science. There are other issues with the comparison too, like grid electricity vs fuel, building vs vehicle lifespans, or the categorization of electric vehicles and their charging stations, but what the results tell us is that buildings should, at least, be an equal part of the public climate change debate. Many of the people who pay a premium for an electric vehicle will work in inefficient buildings, recycling has long been normalized in many parts of the world, and oil companies are public enemy number one, but the average person still doesn’t know what a smart building is.
“Picking just the low-hanging fruits of green efficiency is not enough to make real progress in the fight against climate change. The phasing out of incandescent lighting for LED technology was relatively easy considering the lifespan of light bulbs is measured in months. The ongoing transition to electric mobility is a greater challenge with vehicles typically lasting for years or decades, but still a relatively simple shift in the wider context,” we wrote in a January article. “To really alter the course of the environmental crisis we must tackle the biggest challenges to our climate goals, such as the efficiency of our long-lived buildings that contribute approximately 40% of global carbon emissions.”
A green revolution in road transport may well be easier to achieve than the same kind of change in the real estate sector, but that is all the more reason for the public pressure to be on inefficient buildings. That public pressure makes a difference on consumer trends, recruitment decisions, government (and opposition) policy, and often on the public relations budgets of those firms under the spotlight. The “green consumer” is now an undeniable market force in developed economies and the same social influence has proven its ability to drive all kinds of environmental behavior.
“Harnessing the power of social influence is one of the most effective ways to elicit pro-environmental behaviors in consumption as well. Telling online shoppers that other people were buying eco-friendly products led to a 65% increase in making at least one sustainable purchase,” reads one Harvard Business Review study. “A major predictor of solar panel installation is whether their close-by neighbors have done so, and telling university students that other commuters were using more-sustainable modes of transportation led them to use sustainable transport five times as often as did those who were simply given information about alternatives.”
If having an inefficient home got the same social reaction as having a gas-guzzling car, then we would have more efficient homes. If working for inefficient building developers got the same social reaction as working for an oil giant, then maybe green property developers would get a greater share of the best talent and drive green change. If consumer boycotts targeted firms for having inefficient workplaces in the same way they do for supporting fracking, then we’d have a lot more smart buildings. Maybe it is time to put inefficient buildings in the public climate change spotlight and reap the smart rewards.