Eoin Ó Broin: Focus on built environment is key to cutting emissions
A shift towards new sustainable building materials, technologies and skills is required and to achieve this government must invest in the production and manufacture of these materials and technologies at scale
Much of the public debate on emissions reductions in Ireland has rightly focused on three areas: energy, transport and agriculture. But the built environment is also a major source of greenhouse gases, and if we are to meet our emissions reduction target of 51 per cent by 2030 and net zero by 2050, it must play a central role.
Carbon emissions in the built environment come in two forms. Operational emissions are related to the use of our buildings and include the likes of energy consumed in lighting and heating our homes, workplaces and public services. But buildings and public infrastructure also involve what are known as embodied carbon. This is the carbon emitted by the materials and processes used in their construction and maintenance.
The government’s 2019 carbon action plan addressed only the first of these, with a focus on retrofitting existing building stock and improving the energy efficiency of new buildings. Given the very significant levels of new construction committed to in the National Development Plan – new homes, roads, wind energy infrastructure and more – this is a significant oversight.
At the end of last year, a research group at University College Dublin, which is focused on the question of building in a climate emergency, published a paper that found that 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the state came from the built environment. Of that figure, 20 per cent was from operational emissions and 10 per cent from embodied carbon.
The research was commissioned by the Irish Green Building Council (IGBC), an industry group seeking to encourage sustainable practices, to inform its own report, Towards a Net Zero Whole of Life Carbon Built Environment.
According to that report, if we are to meet our emission reduction targets, all new developments, infrastructure and renovations will need to have net zero embodied carbon. In addition, all buildings, including existing stock, will have to have net zero operational carbon.
This must be accompanied by the promotion of a circular economy through reusing existing materials and resources, rather than discarding them as waste.
Almost half of all emissions from the built environment come from the residential sector. Given that the government’s new housing plan commits to a doubling of housing output over the coming decade, it is disappointing that it has little to say about climate change.
The 158-page document includes just a page and a half on what it calls “environmental sustainability”. Of the eight actions in that section of the plan, five relate to retrofitting and one references existing near zero energy building standards for new homes. There is also a general reference to the objectives of the 2019 climate action plan.
If the residential construction sector is to play its part in meeting our 2030 and 2050 emissions reductions targets, we will need to be much more ambitious than this.
The IGBC has produced a roadmap with 48 separate actions across seven themes that, if enacted, would deliver the scale of ambition required. Central to those actions is a focus on ensuring that all new buildings and infrastructure are net zero in terms of both operational and embodied emissions.
This will require a shift towards new sustainable building materials, technologies and skills. To achieve this, government must invest in the production and manufacture of these materials and technologies at scale, along with the upskilling of workers.
In doing so they would directly provide the thousands of new green jobs so essential to achieving a just transition to a zero carbon future.
Government must also be more ambitious in the reuse of vacant and derelict buildings. According to GeoDirectories, there are 90,000 vacant homes across the state, yet the government’s housing plan only commits to bringing 2,500 of them back into use by 2025.
We also need to change our residential settlement patterns by moving away from urban and rural sprawl. To achieve this, government must financially support rural clustering and make homes in villages, towns and city centres genuinely affordable.
The goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent in 2030 and then achieving net zero by 2050 is ambitious, but it is achievable. We have the science and we have the policy solutions. All we need now is the political will.
Eoin Ó Broin is Sinn Féin’s spokesman on housing, local government and heritage, and author of five books including Defects: Living with the Legacy of the Celtic Tiger