The three main areas of concern in the public debate about emissions reductions in Ireland have been energy, transport, and agriculture. The built environment is a major source for greenhouse gases and must play a central part in achieving our emissions reduction targets of 51% by 2030 and net zero 2050.
There are two types of carbon emissions in the built environment. Operational omissions are related to the use and maintenance of buildings. They include energy used for heating, lighting, and heating our homes and workplaces. However, buildings and public infrastructure also contain what is called embodied carbon. This is carbon emitted during 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.
A research group at University College Dublin focused on the issue of building in a climate crisis published a paper at the end of last season that found that 30% of all greenhouse gases emitted by the state were from the built environment. 20 percent of this figure came from operational emissions while 10 percent was from the built environment. Cent from embodied carbon
The Irish Green Building Council (IGBC), an organization that promotes sustainable practices, requested the research to inform its report, Towards Zero Whole of Life Carbon Built Environment.
According to the report, in order to reduce our emissions, all new developments, infrastructure, and renovations must have net zero embodied CO2. Additionally, all buildings, even existing stock, must have net zero operational CO2.
This must be accompanied and promoted by a circular economy that repurposes existing materials and resources rather than throwing them away.
The residential sector accounts for almost half of all carbon emissions from the built environment. 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”. The plan includes eight actions, five of which relate to retrofitting. One refers to near zero energy building standards in new homes. The plan also includes a general reference to the 2019 climate actions plan’s objectives.
We must be more ambitious if the residential construction sector is going to contribute to our 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets.
The IGBC has created a roadmap that includes 48 actions in seven themes. If enacted, it would achieve the level of ambition required. These actions are centered on ensuring that all new buildings, infrastructure, and other structures are net zero in terms embodied and operational emissions.
This will require a shift toward new sustainable building materials, technology and skills. To achieve this, the government must invest in the production of these materials at large scales and in the training of workers.
They would provide thousands of new green jobs, which is essential for a fair transition to a zero-carbon future.
The government must also be more ambitious when it comes to the reuse of vacant and abandoned 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 shift away from urban sprawl and rural sprawl in order to change residential settlement patterns. To do this, the government must financially support rural clustering, as well as make homes in cities, towns, or villages truly affordable.
Although the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and then reaching net zero by 2050 seems ambitious, it is possible. We have the science, and we have the policies. We just need 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