Climate Regulations for Buildings: International Policy Collaborations

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Building and Cities

by Matti Kuittinen (Aalto University & the Nordic authority group working for climate declarations for buildings 2020–2023)

For mitigating the built environment’s large carbon footprint, regulation within the next 10 years is needed in all countries. The Nordic countries have been co-developing climate policies for buildings since 2018 and are already seeing the positive outcomes from joint efforts. COP28 can apply these principles and lessons elsewhere. To prevent duplication of effort in each country, international collaboration with climatically and culturally similar countries can be beneficial.

We need regulations

As anthropocentric climate change is increasing, existing mitigation policies should reach even further. In 2018, the IPCC warned the construction sector that GHG emissions from the built environment should reduce 80-90% by 2050 (IPCC 2018). However, resource use for buildings and infrastructure is growing faster than the global population (International Resource Panel 2019), as well as the emissions from building materials (Zhong et al. 2021). These trends are taking us further from the pathway to a decarbonised built environment.

The decarbonisation of the built environment is such a big effort that it is neither realistic nor fair to expect it to happen by industry initiatives alone. As the construction sector is notorious for its decades of stagnating value generation, there is hardly enough economic risk-taking capacity for any disruptive innovation. Strong governmental support and interventions have become necessary.

Due to the longevity of buildings and infrastructure, there is a genuine risk for path dependencies that may hinder climate mitigation efforts. Therefore, strong, and decisive policies are needed. However, such legislation includes components that are very technical and require specific expertise. To address the required urgency, collaboration can offer a fast track forward. For example, collaboration with neighbouring countries that share similar contexts (climate, building stock, political economy, trade, and business relations, etc).

Political mandate ensures collaboration

A logical entry point to climate policies for buildings is in the overall climate policy of a country or region. The Nordic countries have set goals for carbon neutrality ahead of EU’s target year 2050. Norway is aiming at carbon neutrality by 2030, Finland by 2035, Iceland by 2040 and Sweden by 2045. Denmark, in turn, is aiming at reducing emissions by 70% by 2030. The observable changes have made it clear for Nordic citizens that an unwelcome change is taking place. This shared experience from the environmental changes may explain why there is a broad support for climate regulation in the Nordic countries.

In 2019 Nordic ministers declared their joint ambition of making their countries a global example of low carbon construction (The Nordic Council 2019). Based on the declaration, countries have been able to work together for the harmonization of related building regulations. This has been important for considering alternative regulatory routes and for solving complexities along the way.

Climate declarations – that contain information on the GHG emissions of a building – have been mandatory for buildings in Sweden and Norway since 2022. Limits for GHG emissions have been in place in Denmark from the beginning of 2023. Finland has regulation for setting GHG limits for buildings from 2025 onwards, and Iceland will follow in the same year.

Benefits of joint policy development

The essential path to climate declarations and to limiting GHG emissions of buildings is to apply life cycle assessment (LCA) to buildings. Although LCA has long tradition and is well defined in international standards, its implementation in policies requires steps that go beyond finessing methodological concerns.

In research, alternative viewpoints for calculating the carbon footprint can (and often must) be applied. But when the use of LCA needs to be scaled up to a national policy, its application must be robust and reliable. It is less essential if the third digit of an LCA calculation is correct. It is more essential that the policies help to reduce emissions effectively with minimum amount of administrative burden or market turbulence. As the aim of an LCA-based regulation is to decrease GHG emissions, the ease of reducing them along the design process of a building is what ultimately matters.

After the ministerial mandate in 2019, the Nordic countries organised a policymaker working group for climate declarations for buildings with the funding from the Nordic Council of Ministers (Nordic Sustainable Construction Programme, 2023). In this group, the alternative approaches for implementing the method of LCA into everyday building design and regulatory process have been discussed and compared. Careful consideration is needed to create a sound balance between the scientific rigour of LCA and its mainstreaming to the needs of the construction project stakeholders. Sharing experiences on which approaches are easiest to implement at scale has proven to be important.

The practical collaboration includes the development of assessment methods that are based on international standards but suitable for policies (i.e. ‘court proof’), creating generic emission databases for building products and processes, making guidance and training materials of how carbon footprint calculations can be done from a digital building design process that utilises building information modelling (BIM), as well as considering ways of jointly following and reporting the decarbonisation of the Nordic building stock.

Cross-border stakeholder engagement

Adjusting to the requirements of new regulation takes time. As the design and construction business often has projects in many countries and collaborates internationally, it is beneficial to arrange consultations and hearings at both national and international levels. Especially in border regions this serves the needs of cross-border collaboration and trade. It would impose impediments and higher costs for companies if they had to develop solutions and documentation for slightly differing climate policies in neighbouring countries that in practice constitute one single market area.

For ensuring that the voice of stakeholders is not only heard in national mandatory hearings of planned regulation but also at an international level, joint stakeholder events have been organised on a yearly basis. These hybrid events have offered an important opportunity for exchange of ideas, dissemination of the results of research, and for building joint commitment for required climate action in the construction sector.

Towards global climate policy for buildings

Currently, the EU is working for the revision of its climate regulation for buildings. Setting mandatory climate declaration requirements for buildings is currently being discussed, as the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive is in review (European Parliament 2023). Although the EU is globally the fourth largest emitter of GHGs and its buildings make up over a third of these emissions (Eurostat 2023), setting just European buildings on a low-carbon pathway is far from sufficient.

To accelerate the climate action in the construction sector, a global plan is needed to reduce the emissions from the built environment. Technically, there is nothing that would prevent a global effort for setting climate mitigation and adaptation policies for the built environment in a decade. It is a question of commitment and determination. Such a plan would not lead into one-size-fits-all policy, but into adapting efficient GHG reduction measures to the context of the local construction culture in a manner that is compatible with national climate policies.

The challenge for accelerating the policy efforts makes collaboration vital. International organisations, such as IPCC or UN, could facilitate for a joint policy initiative that aims at supporting the development of climate regulation for buildings and the built environment. This would avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ of building LCA and instead focus efforts on adapting it to local contexts, climates, and construction cultures. In such work, support from neighbouring countries can ease the efforts considerably.

The environmental harms arising from the creation and operation of built environment are significant.  These harms are hindering the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. Therefore, the accountability of those involved in creating, maintaining, altering and valuing the built environment should be acknowledged. The challenge can be viewed as a positive opportunity to ensure that climate policies and actions are set for buildings.

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