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The link between climate change and buildings

Thu, 12 Nov 2020 Source: Cyril Tetteh

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At some point in the last few years, you would have definitely come across the climate change conversation. At the height of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation gained more significance as personal and environment wellness took center stage.

We have been talking green or sustainable buildings in this column for a while now and a few people have asked what the link between climate change and green buildings are. Today, we put the issue into perspective and hopefully you would have gained a few nuggets if you spare a few minutes. Be our guest.

The Regular Cycle

A very long time ago, despite natural fluctuations in the climate, the earth had its natural cycle of keeping the cold and hot temperatures balanced and comfortable to live in. Light from the sun passes through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the Earth’s surface, warming it. At night the cool temperature ensures that heat is emitted from the surface of the earth.

These heat emissions are however trapped by certain gasses like carbon dioxide, which act like a blanket to prevent complete evaporation of heat, thereby raising the earth’s temperature.

This natural process warms both the lower atmosphere and the surface of the planet and without this effect; the earth would be about 30C colder and hostile to life. This is how it worked until the industrial revolution interrupted the natural cycle mainly through human activities.

Disrupted Cycle

Human activities in the form of deforestation to make way for cities and farms, industrial innovations, like the widespread use of electricity and transportation (cars, trucks and planes), transformed the way we live.

These innovations demanded energy which was created by burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning of fossil fuels however releases more carbon dioxide than required in the normal cycle; hence these excess CO2s only go to further heat up the earth and raise the temperature beyond required safe levels. This is what is known as climate change or global warming, with carbon dioxide emissions a major contributory factor.

Contribution of Our Daily Activities

So, without even being conscious, many of our daily activities increase the carbon footprint. From the moment you wake up and step into a hot bath (increased energy from boiler) to stepping into your car to travel to work alone by yourself in the car, as opposed to carpooling or using public transportation, have steak for lunch with a fruit juice imported via plane, to the time your grab some groceries packed in a plastic bag on your way home, you have in one single day contributed to increased CO2 emissions.

Indeed the effects of climate change are dire- longer, more intense allergy seasons ; foods you love are becoming less nutritious and cost more at the grocery store; more common, more severe, and more long-lasting heat waves; wildfires causing damage to our landscapes and our communities – as well as our health and diseases are spreading more easily.

The Contribution of Buildings

The buildings we live in account for more than 40% of the world’s total primary energy consumption. According to Diana Budds, “building emissions, as typically measured, are a combination of two things. First is day-to-day energy use—known as the “operational carbon emissions” that comes from powering lighting, heating, and cooling.

Globally, building operations account for about 28 percent of emissions annually. Second is the amount of carbon generated through manufacturing building materials, transporting materials to construction sites, and the actual construction process—what’s known as the “embodied carbon of a building,” which accounts for about one quarter of a building’s total lifecycle carbon emissions. Globally, the embodied carbon of a buildings account for about 11 percent of emissions”

Going green or living sustainably to reduce CO2 emissions is thus a no brainer. There have been several civil society groups and state led climate change mitigation and adaptation programs but the greatest change will come from you and I if we do our little bit in our little corner to go green. It all adds up. Shall we?

Columnist: Cyril Tetteh