Rapid GHG reductions under extreme conditions

By Nils K. Larsson, FRAIC
Executive Director, International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment


This paper posits that the problems of climate change effects during the next 50-75 years will be coincident with scarcity and increasing costs of resources and increasing demand levels within the building sector. A case is made that climate change effects may arrive abruptly, which may cause public policy responses that are illogical and ineffective. Proposals are made for more logical responses for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gases under such emergency conditions.

Greenhouse Gases in Climate Change

The anthropogenic driver of climate change is the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, chiefly CO2, but also including Methane, Sox and Nox gases. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that buildings are directly responsible for 15.3 percent of global GHG emissions. To this should be added a share of industrial emissions (for materials) and for road transport. A very conservative estimate of building-related GHG share would therefore be in the range of 20 percent to 25 percent, and this would be higher in developed countries. A strategy for the diminution of GHGs must therefore include the building sector as main target for GHG reductions.

Trends in emissions and global temperature increases

The International Energy Agency has concluded that 1although opinion is mixed on what might be considered a sustainable, long-term level of annual CO2 emissions for the energy sector, a consensus on the need to limit the global temperature rise to 2 ºC is emerging. To limit to 50% the probability of a global temperature increase in excess of 2 ºC, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would need to be stabilized to a level around 450 ppm CO2-eq.

Is such a target likely to be achieved? Although the IEA is guardedly optimistic, trends in emissions seem to point in a different direction. In its 2008 Climate Science Issue Brief 2, the World Resources Institute cites recent research in the field: Raupach et al. note that the growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption and industrial processes has grown from 1.1% per year over the 1990s to more than 3% per year from 2000 to 2004 … The authors find that declining trends in energy intensity of GDP and carbon intensity of energy are now being slowed and even reversed, and thus decarbonization trends are not as strong as previously.

The WRI editors comment that… Scenarios of future climate-related damages (such as those of the IPCC), which to date have been based on more optimistic assumptions, may prove to be conservative descriptions of possible future damages.

Global Climate Change Impacts

One of the sobering aspects of the work done by the IPCC is their exposition of the time scales involved. IPCC demonstrates that CO2 emissions today have a positive feedback on global mean temperature that lasts for over 100 years, and the resulting sea level rise due to thermal expansion lasts well over a 1,000 years. Even if action to reduce GHGs is immediate, the effects of current emissions are still to come. Action is therefore needed, but in addition to the difficulty of obtaining political action, the slow rate of change in the building sector creates a special problem.

The overall impact is also clearly identified by IPCC, and the following excerpts from the 2007 IPCC Report identify some major climate trends for the 21st century: IPCC also predicts that temperature increases will be most pronounced towards the end of the century, with the northern hemisphere the most exposed. The UK Met Office has issued a short pamphlet on the effects of climate change on housing in the UK3, which is generally consistent with the IPCC predictions.

Figure 1: Outline of probable climate change impacts, partly taken from IPPC 2007 AR-4 report4. Click on the table to zoom.


Material Demand, Scarcity, Cost and Supply Problems

Climate change is not the only challenge that will be faced by the building industry during the next century. Several of these factors will converge to make the life of developers, designers and builders especially difficult.

Fuel costs and possible shortages will create problems for automobile owners, especially for those who want to emulate the North American pattern of living in outer suburbs with one car per adult occupant. There may be respite in cost hikes in the form of greatly increased fuel efficiencies or carsharing, but no general solution save that of increasing densities in such areas to a point where public transport becomes economical, something that will take decades. The building sector also faces competition for fossil fuels with, for example, natural gas being used for power generation and space heating, as well as for the production of fertilizers.

As Figure 2 shows, 5 major industrialized countries consumed about half of the global consumption of Copper, Aluminum and Nickel, and for other materials such as Iron, Crude Steel, Zinc and Tin, the consumption levels of the same 5 countries represented between 2+ to 4+ times their proportion of the global population. During the last 5 years, priced for some of these key materials have risen sharply, and then fallen again. The rapid economic growth of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Russia will increase the competition to extract more supplies, but it is apparent that we will reach a point within the next three decades when scarcity coupled with demand will raise prices to levels that would currently be considered clearly unsustainable. Obviously, projects will still be built, but it seems inevitable that they will be very costly and that they will have to serve purposes that are of an urgent nature.


Figure 2: Consumption of selected raw materials, from University of Minnesota, 2005

Resource depletion of key materials will surely continue to drive up construction prices, since most form part of a global market.

Iron ore prices are headed as much as 35 percent higher this year and will likely pressure the profit margins of steel companies… Spot market prices for iron ore surged more than two-fold in the last 12 months on strong demand from China and recovery in Europe, and the United States…. the company continues to hunt for more sources of iron ore and coal for the European unit5.

Martin (BHP Billiton) calculates that there will be a copper supply gap of 10-million tons in 2020... Martin reports that China's per capita copper growth is rising to 4 kg, and he expects this to more than double by 2025. He sees power distribution as a major demand driver owing to copper being preferred as underground distribution cable, and replacing overhead aerial transmission cables - which are made mainly from aluminium - in the process6.

World consumption of cement is forecast to continue to increase throughout the next 15 years, taking the annual volume up from the 2283mt of 2005 to around 3130mta by 2015, and 3560 mta by 2020, representing overall forward expansion of approximately 56%7.

Climate Change Effects Combined with Resource Depletion

The climate and resource issues outlined above will result in major problems for investors, designers and operators of buildings in most regions. They will be complicated by the recession, which one hand makes it harder to find construction funding, while governments want to encourage construction employment on the other. Meanwhile, demographic changes will shift demand for types of dwelling units, which may alter the value of existing buildings to a considerable extent.


Great strides are being made in improving the ecological performance of materials and mechanical systems are rapidly increasing in energy efficiency. Progress is also evident in the environmental performance of some new large buildings through changes in design practice, such as the adoption of Integrated Design Process protocols.

However, performance improvements are mainly applicable to large and expensive new buildings, and more so in Europe than in North America or Asia. It should also be noted that new buildings in most regions represent only from 2% to 4% of the total building stock. Thus, high-performance exemplar projects represent only a very small portion of the total stock. Clearly, the stock of existing buildings should be the major focus of performance improvement efforts in the building sector.

In the sub-sector of single-family houses (the most energy inefficient form of building) there has been considerable improvement in energy performance in North America over the last 15 years.


Irrespective of efficiency gains in residential and non-residential buildings, the trend in developed countries to massively over-consume housing, and to develop it in a very low-density pattern, has required large quantities of materials for both nfrastructure and buildings, with consequent embodied and operating GHG emissions. The urban development of Las Vegas from 1973 to 2000, mainly from single-family housing, provides a striking example in Fig. 3.

Figure 3: Aerial photos of urban development in Las Vegas in 1973 and 2000, from UNEP 2005


A more general perspective is provided by the data below. Although data is for the U.S.A., Canada follows a very similar path8.

  • Between 1950 and 2004, the size of the average new house in the US expanded by 135%, from about 93 m2 to 218 m2;
  • One in five new houses now comes in at more than 465 m2. (The US National Association of Home Builders’ ‘showcase home’ for 2005 was 553 m2 or 15% bigger than the 2004 model.
  • Forty-three per cent of new construction features 2.75 m ceilings compared with 15% in the 1980s.
  • Meanwhile, between 1950 and 2003, average US household size fell from 3.7 to 2.6 people.
  • This means that floor space per capita increased by over 230% from 25 m2 to 84 m2.

Such development patterns continue, and effectively wipe out efficiency gains. The problem is likely to worsen, with substantial urban growth forecast for regions such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, and with increasingly affluent populations striving for Western standards of accommodation. The sheer numbers, as shown below, will make solutions based on efficiency alone unlikely to succeed.


Figure 4: UN World Population Prospects: The 2006 World Urbanization Prospects: 2007 Revision

The Dilemma

The overall situation is that, although impressive efficiency gains are being made in building and equipment performance, excess consumption is wiping out these gains. More troubling is that consumption is culturally determined, and cultural changes usually require a decade or more of substantial information and incentives. Some regions and countries, especially in Europe, have responded in a positive way, but major private sector emitters are not likely to respond to a sufficient degree, especially not within the very small narrow window of opportunity for mitigation that still exists. Add to this the need for substantial amounts of new construction in developing countries, and it is unlikely that global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be sufficient to result in levels below 450 ppm of GHG, which in turn will bring into play some of the more dire predictions of IPCC.

We therefore face a possibility of massive disruption of agriculture and industry and living and working conditions, possibly by mid-century and certainly by the end of the century. Although we all want to look for a happy ending, we are not likely to avoid this fate unless there is a major paradigm shift, and such shifts usually require major external events to be considered. The Depression, WW2 and 9/11 are historical examples of such conditions.

A major problem in motivating decision-makers to act is that the harbingers of climate change in North America and northern Europe have been, until now, relatively gradual and benign. This sequence may cause us to become numbed by a gradually escalating series of climate-related incidents and not act decisively until it is far too late. However, climate change may also be announced by a series of major and sudden natural disasters, an outcome that is certainly within the bounds of projections made by the IPCC. If such a series of sudden catastrophes were to have direct impacts on elites in developed countries, especially in the U.S.A. or Canada, there would likely be a strong and immediate public demand for effective responses to mitigate the effects of the events. This would provide a real opportunity to simultaneously deal with the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, if key people and organizations had realistic plans and were ready to act. Sudden climate disasters are not a pleasant prospect, but it is one of the few scenarios that offer the potential for resolute action.

We have a duty to explore the possibility of catastrophic climate-induced events, what the consequences might be, and how they might best be dealt with.

Scenarios for the Debut of Climate Change Effects

Our assumption for the type of major events related to climate change that are likely to occur during the next decade include coastal storms with related storm surges, inland storms, flash floods, droughts and major forest fires.

Business-as-usual scenario

If a series of such events take place in first-world regions within the next decade, with extensive damage and multiple deaths, it is likely that the imminence of climate change will finally be accepted by the majority of media and decision-makers. Based on the history of catastrophic events of other
types, we can assume that the shock effect will open the minds of the public and elites to radical measures. But such openness will last only for a few weeks, and desperate leaders will grab whatever plans are available. The result could be hasty, ad-hoc and poorly considered action. We have unfortunate examples of this kind of reaction from the collapse of the USSR, the 9/11 event, SARS, the recent recession, and even the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In the case of the forthcoming weather shocks from climate change effects, we may unfortunately face a similar situation, but the consequences may be even more serious. The immediate concern will be to care for injured populations and to carry out immediate repairs, and this is likely to push the need for adaptation and mitigation measures to the back burner.

Governments might be led to announce that, in addition to urgent repair and re-building efforts,national emissions must be reduced by large amounts over a very short period (say 80% by 2025 instead of 2050), along with promises of massive fines if targets are not met. Reaching such performance requirements would be very difficult, because strategies for such a rapid and deep reductions would have to be invented on the fly. We can foresee that such actions might be achievable in, for example, in the automotive or the consumer goods sectors, but it will be much harder to do so in the building sector. The building industry is very large and complex, with a few large players and very many small ones on the production side, and with control even more dispersed on the demand side. Finally, buildings are almost all unique, so global approaches need local modifications.

Given the scenario outlined above, a government might well push the construction and real estate sectors towards a rapid a drastic reduction in emissions, along with promises of massive fines if targets are not met. Achieving such goals will be very difficult, because very few countries have
central departments with direct responsibility for the building industry. Also, the industry is very large and complex, with a few large players and very many small ones on the production side, and with control even more dispersed on the demand side.

We can envision the results without too much speculation:

  • First, we would expect a surge in demand for man and materials to carry out urgent repair, rebuilding and re-location needs which would, within weeks, deplete the supply of skilled and firms in the affected region;
  • Manufacturers of building materials would be faced with urgent production requests, but would face greatly increased power costs, and might also have to cope with a disrupted labor force and plant conditions. Prices for materials and services of this type would therefore reach astronomical levels;
  • Owners or managers of existing commercial buildings would have to reduce operating hours to meet GHG reduction targets;
  • Residential tenants will face mandatory energy cuts;
  • The value of buildings with poor energy efficiency will plummet. Suburban building land values will also face massive drops because of controls on new building and stringent limits on private vehicle emissions, which will bring new construction in outer suburbs to a halt.
  • Many standards for good design and operations, such as adequate lighting levels, indoor comfort conditions, and work to preserve heritage buildings will fall by the wayside, at least temporarily (say for 20 years);
  • Social tensions will rise to very high levels when those who want to pursue their normal paths (commercial building development, building your dream home) are faced with permit refusals, while climate refugees and families suffering from energy poverty are given priority;
  • And the need to deal with repair and remedial work will lead governments to say that they cannot afford more GHG mitigation measures;

In view of such a series of effects, little effective reduction in emissions would be achieved.

A scenario for contingency planning

A leading academic, referring to recent evidence of rapid climate change in the Arctic and dealing with general social and political effects,1 recently stated that … We need a much more deliberate Plan Z, with detailed scenarios of plausible climate shocks; close analyses of options for emergency response by governments, corporations and nongovernmental groups; and clear specifics about what resources — financial, technological and organizational — we will need to cope with different types of crises9.

Some of these consequences can be avoided if quick and decisive action takes place, but such responses are likely to be effective only if action plans have been developed before the emergency occurs, and are ready for immediate implementation. Even though some government and many private-sector organizations have not been willing to take meaningful mitigation steps to date, they might be willing to prepare contingency plans for rapid reduction, as part of a due diligence process.

Such plans must support very rapid reductions in GHG emissions over a short time-frame – something like 75% over 5 years – but varying with the sector and specific cases. To be available when the time comes, such plans must be voluntarily developed now by a variety of public- and private-sector organisations, so they will be ready when needed. A large number of contingency plans will need to be prepared by individual governments and private-sector organizations, to cover most key sectors of the emission-producing economy.

Measures proposed do not include those that require lengthy planning or implementation times, such as the introduction of carbon taxes or risk assessment studies of existing urban areas and building stock with regard to possible climate change impact events, such as floods, wind storms, heat waves etc.10. Such work is a necessity for post-disaster recovery.

Excluding measures that require lengthy planning of implementation times, a selection of essential contingency plans would include plans for the rapid introduction of the following measures.

  1. Immediately introduce carbon taxes, to reduce the carbon intensity of building-sector related goods and services; and simultaneously reduce existing income taxes;
  2. Immediately ban the construction of new coal-fired generation power plants and the extension of existing plants, unless significant GHG sequestration is provided. It should be noted that much sequestrtaion has been promised over the last decade, but very little has been delivered.
  3. Rapidly reduce peak loads in electrical networks through the rate structure and through load ceilings, especially in manufacturing plants and commercial facilities, by means of changes in industrial processes, operating hours or other relevant means. This is intended to minimize the need for new power plants to handle peak loads.
  4. Accelerate the introduction of feed-in tariff policies from decentralized renewable power sources, at rates that do not distort energy markets.
  5. Ensure that facilities and services of critical importance, such as hospitals, public transportation systems, food supplies, water and sewage treatment and pumping systems, can remain functional at a basic level. This may require the provision of back-up electrical power, heat, water and other vital services on a decentralized basis.
  6. Prepare for the relocation of key facilities such as docks11 and airports and of populations in areas vulnerable to flooding, storm surges or fire12. It should be noted that such projects may require 5 years or more to carry out, even on an urgent basis.
  7. In developed countries, impose a freeze on new construction in un-serviced or low-density areas or potential flood areas, and a zero operating GHG emissions requirement for new construction that is permitted. This is undoubtedly one of the most important measures to minimize demand for scarce construction materials or land and also to minimize the generation of embodied emissions.
  8. Ensure a rapid reduction programs in operating emissions of existing public buildings, private office, hotel and multi-unit residential buildings, through implementation of “shovel-ready” retrofit plans and better operating practices, all while minimising disruption or reduction in service levels to occupants.
  9. Implement measures for the rapid and ambitious performance improvements in energy, peak loads and water consumption for existing single-family dwellings.
  10. In areas designated for performance upgrading, establish immediate programs of urban infill to increase densities and renovation of existing buildings to greatly reduce GHG emissions (by at least 80%) and to improve water performance;
  11. Launch programs for the rapid conversion of surplus office buildings to residential uses and identification of empty non-primary dwellings. Such a measure may be needed if residential areas are damaged or destroyed or if there is an influx of climate refugees.
  12. Introduce measures to minimize short-term speculative price rises for construction materials. Under emergency conditions, free-market speculation can lead to material shortages and an inability to carry out urgent repair and upgrade projects.
  13. Prohibit the sale of appliances and equipment that do not meet certain operating efficiency criteria (e.g. "A" label in Europe).
  14. Establish crash training programs for regulators, renovation contractors, simulation specialists and others needed to upgrade performance in new and existing buildings.
  15. Rapidly implement public education programs to promote conservation in energy, water and materials, for office tenants and residential owners or tenants.

It is clear that the content of GHG rapid reduction plans proposed above would be a sensitive matter in some cases, where the leakage of information under current conditions might pose political difficulties because of limitations on personal freedom of action that are implicit in such measures, as well as harm that might occur to companies in a highly competitive market. It is therefore suggested that participating organizations would not be compelled to share their plans with any outside organization, but only to report that they have completed a plan that satisfies the content criteria established in the project. The main emphasis here is to ensure that workable and humane plans are available for rapid implementation when circumstances demand it. There are certain characteristics that such plans would have to be based on if they are to be effective.

  • Measures proposed will have to be able to be very quickly implemented; beginning within weeks rather than months;
  • The scope of proposed action will have to be defined (e.g. all or part of a property portfolio, certain segments of a customer base etc.);
  • Estimates of speed and amount of net reduction in GHGs emissions will have to be provided, projected on a year-by-year basis over a 5-year time frame;
  • Plans will have to identify measures to minimize negative social disruption or other secondary impacts;
  • Identify main obstacles or sources of likely opposition and suggest coping strategies;
  • Complementary action required by governments, other regulatory authorities or financial institutions to facilitate implementation of the plan should be identified.


Some governments, especially in Europe, have launched ambitious plans to reduce GHGs, but it is not yet clear whether their voters will agree with the changes in lifestyle that will be necessary to meet these targets.

Excessive consumption will not easily be reduced, and is likely to lead us into global temperature increases that will be considerably greater than the desired target of 2 ºC;

It will probably require one or more climate-induced disasters of major proportions to shock governments and their populations into real action, especially in North America. When that happens, there will be an immediate demand for contingency plans to reduce GHGs in a very rapid way and to implement urgent measures for climate change adaptation.

In view of on-going government inaction, it is most logical for national and local governments, as well as private organizations to develop such plans and keep them ready. The alternative is to do nothing now, but to be forced to accept hastily developed and unsound plans when an emergency is declared.


  1. IEA World Energy Outlook 2009, Executive Summary, pg. 7
  2. WRI Issue Brief, Climate Science 2007, World Resources Institute, September 2008
  3. UK Met Office; Effects on Housing; April 2009. The Met Office website on 01 October, 2008 also stated: Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand…. The evidence is clear — the longterm trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise. Global warming does not mean that each year will be warmer than the last, natural phenomena will mean that some years will be much warmer and others cooler.…. In the last couple of years, the underlying warming is partially masked caused by a strong La Niña. Despite this, 11 of the last 13 years are the warmest ever recorded.
  4. IPCC AR4 Working Group 1, Summary for Policymakers, 2007, p. 8. Note that Virtually certain are events with a 99% probability of occurrence while Very likely are events with 95% probability of occurrence.
  5. See www.reuters.com
  6. See www.miningweekly.com, 16 May 2010
  7. See www.cementprices.blogspot.com
  8. From Rees, William E. (2009) The ecological crisis and self-delusion: implications for the building sector, in Building Research & Information, 37: 3, 300 — 311.
  9. Disaster at the Top of the World, Thomas Homer-Dixon, New York Times, 22 Augsut, 2010.
  10. See for example Methods for risk assessment and mapping in Germany, preface to special issue of Natural Hazards Earth System Science 6, 721-733, 2006, and also Winter storm risk of residential structures - model development and application to German state of Baden-Würtemberg, P. Heneka, T. Hofherr, B, Ruck and C. Kottmeier, in Natural Hazards Earth System Science 6, 721-733, 2006.
  11. The U.S. military is well aware of the dangers that many of its coastal bases are facing; see National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, CNA Corporation, 2007.
  12. The dismal efforts at relocation and rebuilding in New Orleans are a reminder of how extensive and well coordinated the required efforts will have to be if they are to be successful;