The threat of climate change may not be a big enough priority in most countries, but going green can help to tackle other, more pressing, socio-economic problems, as demonstrated by a retrofit project in South Africa, says Jane Henley
The building sector’s supersized global footprint is difficult to ignore. In the UK alone, buildings are responsible for more than 50 per cent of energy use. Globally, the building sector consumes around 3 billion tonnes of raw materials a year, roughly 40 to 50 per cent of global resource consumption. The built environment is also responsible for around 20 per cent of the world’s water consumption.
Yet hidden beneath these alarming statistics exists a real opportunity for dramatic change. The UN-sponsored body of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded in its 2007 report that of all sectors, buildings offer the largest potential to reduce emissions - and at the least cost. In fact, by deploying readily available energy-efficiency measures and technologies, we can begin reducing emissions in residential and commercial building sectors now and achieve cuts in the range of 30 per cent below business-as-usual by 2020 - and at no net cost.
More pressing matters
Science tells us that we must keep global temperatures from rising above the 2°C threshold, or below. But it’s clear from the international climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, last December, that the threat of climate change is not enough for most people to act. Other priorities, such as dealing with poverty, housing affordability and job creation, are much higher on the list.
However, tackled the right way, green buildings can reduce carbon emissions and deliver on those pressing priorities. While carbon reduction is not the primary driver to act, it is a consequence of a long-term, sustainable economic plan.
In this context, those of us in wealthy nations should begin turning to green, low carbon buildings as critical complementary measures to achieve deeper cuts. At the same time, growing economies should employ green building strategies as a central part of sustainable development pathways and efficient energy use.
As part of the World Green Building Council’s participation in the UN COP-17 climate change summit in Durban last year, we collaborated with the Green Building Council of South Africa to retrofit an entire street.
The COP-17 legacy project involves 30 low-income homes in a street in Cato Manor, Durban, which have undergone a green refurbishment to demonstrate the range of possible social, economic and environmental benefits.
South Africa has built more than 2.5 million low-income homes in the past 15 years, and is targeting a further 3 million by 2025. So far, green considerations such as passive design, energy efficiency and water efficiency have not generally been a priority.
Each house was retrofitted with a solar water heater, efficient lighting and a heat-insulation cooker. Roof insulation now regulates temperatures in the homes to ensure they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter, while the new rainwater harvesting systems will enable better water and food security.
Indigenous trees were planted and local electricity provider Eskom installed energy-saving LED street lighting and established historical baselines for electricity consumption. Similarly, temperature and humidity recorders will help the project team evaluate the energy and dollars saved by the retrofit project.
Ticking all the boxes
The project will deliver a range of socio-economic, health and environmental benefits such as lower energy costs, reduced illness and safety risks, skills training and job creation for disadvantaged members of the community, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact.
The residents have chosen to name the street ‘Isimosezulu COP17 Place’. Isimosezulu means ‘climate’, and will ensure COP-17 has a lasting legacy for the people of Cato Manor.
Jane Henley is chief executive of the World Green Building Council