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Oleg Dzioubinski
Regional Adviser – Sustainable Energy Division – United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Igor Litvinyuk
Economic Affairs Officer – United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Buildings and the built environment are critical across the array of sustainable development goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The goals go beyond decarbonization, though decarbonization remains the most urgent as the climate crisis is existential. Stated broadly, the 2030 Agenda outlines the world’s quality of life aspirations. Buildings and the built environment are a critical but under-exploited opportunity for delivering on sustainability and development. Failure to exploit the opportunity will lock in a built environment that intensifies the climate crisis and undermines efforts for a globally shared basic quality of life.

Startling assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were issued in August. The climate is changing. The impacts are widespread and are intensifying rapidly well beyond expectations. The impending environmental catastrophe will impact all life on earth if left unchecked. Some of the trends are considered irreversible for centuries, perhaps millennia.

The COVID pandemic also has brought new urgency and it has put in stark relief the dangers of poverty for equitable outcomes and social cohesion. The pandemic has highlighted the benefits of truly collaborative approaches among nations and communities.

These accumulated developments demand an immediate focus on the built environment.

There is consensus that achieving high performance in the built environment will require a holistic approach. “High performance” addresses the dynamics of the relationship between buildings and poverty, hunger, health, education,

gender equity, water and sanitation, energy and energy access, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation, resilience, safety, infrastructure, oceans, ecosystems and justice.

Comprehensive and strategic, long-term action in the built environment is in tension with the urgency of the climate crisis and the near-term imperative to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases to a “sustainable carbon budget”. The built environment must play its role starting immediately. Embodied carbon along with operational carbon resulting from the energy used in the built environment represents %40 of the carbon challenge and must be %40 of the solution. These investments represent a great opportunity as well to address inequities, improve quality of life at least cost, and bring humanity into balance with the natural environment.

Key outcomes expected from proper management of the built environment include:

  • Energy and climate action (affordable clean energy)
  • Resilience (affordability, weather – heat, cold, wind, natural disasters)
  • Health (indoor/ outdoor air pollution, disease,comfort)
  • Social justice, equity, employment
  • Water (deluge, drought, contamination, sanitation)
  • Resources (land use, materials, waste)
  • Mobility
  • Technology access (including digitalization)
  • Systemic effectiveness and technical efficiency

While each outcome can be tracked objectively with specific indicators, addressing them severally rather than collectively misses important synergies. Nine propositions have emerged from UNECE’s work on high performance buildings, and our expert community is working to elaborate effective and comprehensive approaches to deliver them:

  1. Invest in existing buildings and existing community infrastructure as a priority
  2. Set rigorous, community-relevant standards for all new
  3. Reduce energy demand, operational carbon emissions and embedded
  4. Increase low or no-carbon energy supply to meet building energy
  5. Ensure energy access, reliability and
  6. Ensure water management, access, reliability, and
  7. Ensure waste management and a circular material economy.
  8. Ensure access to fresh, non-polluted air.
  9. Improve social The critical factor underlying UNECE’s high performance buildings initiative is its community focus. Delivering tangible outcomes at community level but at global scale is necessary if the world is to face its climate and development challenges, which is possible only with the engagement of and action by community actors.