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By Alison Buckholtz

Cities across the globe are confronting an uncomfortable truth: they bear the brunt of climate change while also contributing to it. That’s compelling local governments to take action—more than 700 cities in 53 countries have committed to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Cutting building emissions is one of the most effective ways to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, as the most recent United Nations report found, because buildings account for 28 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. The investment potential is significant: Green buildings account for more than 80 percent of the $29.4 trillion in investment opportunities that will open up in emerging-market cities by 2030. Building retrofits represent a $1.1 trillion investment opportunity, and could create 25 million new jobs globally by 2030, according to an IFC analysis. Policies to stimulate green construction could create another $25 trillion in investments in the same time span.

In this interview, Cassie Sutherland, program director of energy and buildings at C40, a network of the world’s megacities and mayors committed to addressing climate change, explains cities’ unique role confronting climate change, and how local governments’ actions to decarbonize buildings can shift the market and strengthen cities’ economies.

Cassie Sutherland
Cassie Sutherland . Photo courtesy: Cassie Sutherland

Q: Global warming is such an overwhelming challenge that it’s surprising that local governments, rather than national governments, are at the forefront of climate change activism. Why have some actions, such as strengthening green building regulations, become the responsibility of mayors and subnational officials?

A: As a network of 97 cities across the world, all coming together to tackle climate change, we at C40 have seen over and over that our mayors are the strongest champions of the Paris agreement. They are committed to delivering on its highest ambition. I think cities are often where accelerated action happens because cities are able to go further, faster, in many cases, than the national governments. Cities are more agile, they're able to make quicker decisions and able to implement on a quicker timescale. Another factor forcing cities to act is that they see the need. The impacts of climate change, as well as the benefits of climate action, have an immediate impact in cities and a tangible impact on people's lives.

The other reason that cities are so motivated to combat climate change is that the proportion of people who live in cities is expected to grow. And when you look at the population of cities and their density, compared to when you look at a country scale, it really highlights inequalities. You see that climate change isn't fair: It's disproportionately affecting minorities, and the poorest people—the elderly, women, and children. Since we’re talking about buildings, these are the people who typically they live in poor-quality buildings and are most likely to be affected by the impacts of climate change, whether it's overheating, or heat seeping out of walls, or flooding from increased rainfall. Mayors see this close-up, and want to reduce those inequalities.

Q: What kinds of tools can city officials use once they decide they want to move toward more green or zero-carbon buildings?

A: The powers held by local officials vary from city to city. In some cases they will control legislative or regulatory powers, or perhaps the budget. In some cases it comes down to the assets that they own and operate, and the ability to regulate building stock. Some cities own and operate their electricity grids, whereas others are completely privatized, or state-owned. But they have this in common: When they see the need to decarbonize the building stock, they are forced to be innovative and work with whatever powers they have. So they might set strong standards for new buildings, or deeply retrofit those buildings with new lighting, heating, and insulation. Taking any combination of those actions shows that a city is serious about tackling building emissions, and sends a strong signal to the market.

Q: How would the decision of a local government to decarbonize its buildings shift the market?

A: The decision to decarbonize buildings prepares a pipeline of goods and services. It lets building owners, installers, technology providers, the finance community, know that they need to be in a position to deliver net zero carbon buildings. It lets industry know that there will be jobs to fill. That’s key because in cities the mayoral cycles can be short, and therefore a long-term vision and long-term goals are important.

Q: You mentioned jobs. What’s the connection between green buildings and jobs?

A: When it comes to decarbonizing buildings, the potential for job creation is significant. This is particularly important now, in the recovery phase of the pandemic. One of our recent studies shows that the job creation potential for retrofitting buildings, and new energy efficient construction, was the highest out of all of the climate actions. Retrofitting and upgrading of our building stock and creating zero-carbon buildings is a long term action—it’s not going to be done overnight, which means that the jobs are sustainable.

It’s also very important that these jobs are local. So it's going to be city residents—including women, who have been traditionally underrepresented in the building industry—that benefit from them. Green and zero-carbon buildings are part of an overall green and just future that assures fairness and equity as cities try to achieve their climate goals.

Zero-carbon buildings (also called “net-zero”) are highly-efficient new or retrofitted structures that are fully powered from on- or off-site renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Zero-carbon buildings have higher standards for energy efficiency than traditional green buildings; to be certified so the developer can qualify for incentives and benefits, they typically must show energy savings of more than 40 percent, compared to a traditional building.

Published in November 2021