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Creating a sustainable future with green buildings

The interiors of a green building. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The interiors of a green building. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The effect of climate change in India has been pronounced. Five of the warmest years occurred in the past 15 years. Heatwaves now last longer than before and are more intense. Himalayan glaciers are retreating. The frequency of cyclones is growing across the country’s 8,000 km coastline. The sea level has been rising at about an average of 1.7 mm.

India is already the third-largest global emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), even though the per capita emissions are well below the global averages. Emissions could rise exponentially with the economic growth if not kept in check. As the country develops, there will be a higher demand for energy, natural resources, vehicles, air conditioning and buildings.

Buildings are one of the biggest consumers of energy and sources of CO2 emissions. According to a Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC) report, the residential, non-residential and building construction industry accounted for 36% of the global energy consumption in 2020. The three segments were also responsible for 37% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

But there’s growing evidence that controlling building emissions can help address climate change, create sustainable and thriving communities, and drive economic growth. The building sector has the most potential for delivering significant and cost-effective greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, according to UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The body believes that countries will not meet emission reduction targets without supporting energy efficiency gains in the building sector.

Improving lives

If countries don’t mitigate climate change risks, many parts could become inhabitable due to extreme weather and rising sea levels, displacing the inhabitants in these areas. The only option for such residents would be to head to the cities, putting pressure on the existing infrastructure.

Rising temperatures and more frequent and intense droughts are already causing crop yield declines and failures, disrupting livelihoods and food security. The retreating Himalayan glaciers, which feed river systems, can impact water availability severely.

The green concepts and techniques in the building sector can help address national issues like water efficiency, energy efficiency, reduction in fossil fuel use in commuting, handling of consumer waste and conserving natural resources.

Reducing emissions in buildings can lower air pollution which, according to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health , was responsible for 1.67 million deaths in India in 2019. The economic loss due to the lost output from premature deaths and morbidity from air pollution was 1.4% of the GDP in India during this time, which was equivalent to $36.8 billion.

According to the Indian Green Building Council (IGBC), the energy savings from green buildings could range from 20-30% and water savings around 30-50%. The intangible benefits of new green buildings include enhanced air quality, excellent daylighting, health and well-being of the occupants, and conservation of scarce national resources.

Green buildings have their economic benefits, too. They can improve employee productivity, health and safety and reduce energy, maintenance, and operational costs. They add to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) as climate change leads to economic losses.

Tackling the future

India is yet to build most buildings that will exist in 2040. The country will need over 50 billion square metres of residential floor space in the next 20 years due to urbanisation, as per International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) India Energy Outlook 2021 report. An estimated 270 million people are likely to be added to India’s urban population between now and 2040. At present, the residential space is less than 20 billion square metres. Add to this the requirement for commercial and industrial buildings — and there will be a massive use of building materials, significantly higher demand for energy and a multifold rise in emissions.

Up until now, India’s economic growth has been driven mainly by the services sector rather than the more energy-intensive industry sector. The rate at which India has urbanised has been somewhat slower than other emerging countries. A lot depends on how fast India urbanises and industrialises over the coming decades and the policies that govern these processes.

If the government and businesses push through the sustainability agenda, emission levels of new buildings could be far lower than the existing ones. Even though existing structures can be retrofitted with new-age devices and tech to reduce emissions, developers can use sustainable building materials, designs and construction techniques in newer buildings.

According to GlobalABC, decarbonising the built environment requires a triple strategy. One, reduce energy demand and increase energy efficiency. Two, decarbonise the energy system and, three, address the embodied carbon stored in building materials. Embodied carbon is the CO2 emissions associated with materials and construction processes.

The future is not bleak

At the COP26 UN climate conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged that India would achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. He also said that 50% of India’s total electricity would be generated from renewable energy sources by 2030.

Most experts believe that the targets are achievable looking at the country’s track record. India has been decoupling its economic growth from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The country’s emission intensity of GDP reduced by 12% between 2005 and 2010, and it achieved a reduction of 24% between 2005 and 2016, according to the Third Biennial Update Report by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The prime minister said that emissions per unit GDP will be reduced by at least 45% by 2030 compared to the 2005 levels. The earlier target was 33-35%.

At present, electricity production is the biggest emitter of CO2 and accounts for 40% of the total emissions in the country. As the share of electricity from renewables rise, emissions could be lower despite higher economic growth.

The real estate industry has been doing its part. The green floor space in the country is on the rise. According to Indian Green Building Council, there are 7,002 registered projects and a 7.97 billion square feet green building footprint.

Developers are opting for green buildings due to the rising demand from occupiers. It may take some time, but green buildings could become a norm for all new developments if things remain on track.

The writer is CEO and Country Head, India, JLL.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:30:25 am | https://www.thehindu.com/real-estate/creating-a-sustainable-future-with-green-buildings/article38077205.ece