The building sector is one of the more important economic sectors. It fuels the global economy, offers employment to millions of people, provides shelter, and protects the health and the well-being of dwellers. At the same time, it is the source of serious economic technological, environmental, and social problems. It is highly responsible for local and global climate change and global overheating problems, while it consumes tremendous quantities of energy and raw materials.
In parallel, because of the significant cost of housing and associated services to supply them, a significant portion of the world’s population cannot afford to satisfy their needs, and as a result live in a condition of poverty. A major objective of the sector is to achieve the sustainability goals in the built environment; however, the specific targets set by the global sustainability agenda, mainly defined at the beginning of the present century, are not fully sufficient to face the current and future problems and challenges of the built environment. Recent urban growth, and the tremendous increase in the population expected until 2050, call for a more radical and efficient agenda to adapt the built environment to changing conditions. Greening the built environment is not enough any more. Humanity must fight existing poverty levels and at the same time must shelter more than 3-4 billion new people by 2050 and provide them with the basic health, sanitary and education services and networks.
To satisfy such a requirement is a major challenge for the broad building industry, which must develop and apply innovative economic, political, social and technological solutions and tools to the problems.
Inevitably, the various creators of an agenda for the future built environment have identified and documented all the above problems. International institutions have prepared scenarios and studies forecasting future conditions in the building sector. Unfortunately, knowledge and even identification of the issues are not enough to drive change, and may not suffice to provide credible solutions. Quantitative and qualitative technological, environmental, political, social and economic targets and objectives concerning our future must be set and agreed. Once such an agreement is achieved, the most important thing is that humanity decides on an executive roadmap to follow until the objectives are met and acceptable solutions are implemented. Given the history of the world and the conditions under which we are living, such a scenario seems to be unrealistic or even a naïve expectation. Reaching such an international agreement is very difficult; some people may think it is impossible. Conflicting interests and the indifference of powerful groups and lobbies seem to present insurmountable obstacles.
Everyone agrees that moral principles and philanthropy are not strong enough motives to design and provide solutions. It is more realistic to search, define and implement alternative, efficient and powerful policies.
It seems that a potential translation of the identified challenges into corresponding opportunities may offer some perspectives and a light at the end of the tunnel. But how this may be realized? The answer is clear through the economic development associated with the greening of the built environment in the developed countries and the drastic improvement of the quality of the built environment in the same countries, including the satisfaction of the needs of the expected new population. It is estimated that the budget required just to decrease the energy consumption of buildings by 2050 to meet the climatic targets of Paris, and decarbonize the energy infrastructures, exceeds USD$100 trillion. On top of this, the budget to build at least 1.5 billion additional homes for the new population, extend the cities, and finally provide the necessary new urban and energy infrastructures multiplies the above figure by a factor of two or even three. In parallel, the budget to fight urban overheating and completely eradicate energy poverty all around the world may exceed USD$100 trillion. Such a huge capital investment by 2050 represents a financial opportunity, which if properly managed could incentivize all kinds of players in the market to develop solutions
There is a serious need to further advance building energy-related research and innovation. New innovative and cutting-edge energy and environmental technology products must be developed and must be available on the market. It is not enough to continue to slowly improve energy efficiency.
Humanity needs a technological revolution in building technologies, similar to the progress achieved recently in the electronics, telecommunication and pharmaceutical sectors.
The countries and institutions that invest in advanced building research over the next few years will be the future technological leaders and will virtually monopolize the future market. The rest of the countries will follow the technological leaders and will simply purchase products.
These new, efficient technologies should available at a reasonable cost. Profits should come from the extensive penetration of the products in the market and their widespread use by households and the commercial companies, not because of the high cost of the product per se. A marketing policy like the one followed by the electronics market must be designed and implemented. In addition, new economic and policy tools must be made available in the market. Investments by SMEs must be encouraged and promoted. Building-related research in the developing countries should try to develop and apply advanced energy technologies based on local knowledge and offering high added value for the country.
In conclusion, the proposed new urban agenda is a wonderful opportunity for development. If planned properly and implemented in a fair way, it can result in much better living conditions for most of the population in both the developed and developing countries, and it will generate wealth, employment and social equality. On the contrary, if investments are manipulated and used for the benefits of a small group of people, then the improvements achieved in the energy and environmental status will fail to have a positive impact. Instead, economic and social sustainability and equity will be damaged seriously, and social stratification and discrimination will increase tremendously and the additional social stress will be considerable. Investments should be targeted at diminishing economic disparities and discrimination. The efficiency of models of aggregate economic growth must be reconsidered in order to increase as much as possible the incremental benefits of global growth to the whole population and improve upon past poverty-reduction efforts, where in order for EUR€1 to reach the poorest population, almost EUR€166 had to be produced and consumed in the global economy.
Such ambitious goals will be achieved gradually and will be associated with major technological breakthroughs. It is evident that the definition and the implementation of a clear, ambitious, holistic and multifaceted vision for the future of the built environment is an imperative.
This contribution is an extract of the book Minimizing energy consumption, energy poverty and global and local climate change in the built environment – Innovating to Zero, published in 2018 by Associated Press.