Who likes a noisy bedroom? What about a living room that feels cold in winter and hot in summer? While this is currently the reality of city life for many of us, it does not have to be. According to our recent report, Latin Americans and Caribbeans can get better buildings with more comfortable temperatures, noise insulation, and, wait for it: cheaper bills too! But getting there requires governments to map the obstacles that prevent better buildings from becoming the norm, remove these barriers, and enable a transition to a net-zero carbon economy in the process.
Buildings consume a lot of energy. For example, half of what the region spends on electricity comes from keeping lights on in offices and homes, powering appliances such as washing machines or elevators, and providing heating or air conditioning. About 11% of carbon emissions from the region come from electricity used in buildings. In addition, when cooking or heating our homes, most of us burn wood or fossil fuels (natural gas or kerosene), producing another 4% of CO2 emissions while polluting the air in our homes. On top of that, producing the cement, steel and other building materials produces its own emissions.
To put an end to the climate crisis, we need to make buildings more efficient, run them on clean electricity, and use them for on-site renewable electricity generation. Action is urgent: the international energy agency says that all new construction should be “zero carbon ready” by 2030, and retrofits must be carried out on most buildings by 2050.
Better buildings are in reach…
The good news is that the technology is already here. Did you know that most air conditioning units are reversible heat pumps that can be used to heat your home, consuming 2 to 4 times less energy than electric radiators or furnaces that burn gas or wood? Heat pumps can also be used to provide hot water – but on-roof solar heaters can be even better. In the kitchen, electric cookstoves don’t emit indoor pollution, reducing the millions of premature deaths that indoor pollution causes every year globally. Electric pressure cookers are also super efficient, and foodies increasingly prefer induction cooktops.
Design is also part of the solution. Many building features can contribute to reduced heating, cooling, and lighting loads: placement and orientation to maximize or avoid sunlight, choice of materials to improve insulation (with the extra benefit of noise reduction), window overhang to provide shade, roof greening or whitening to absorb or reflect heat, natural air circulation to reduce the need for air conditioning, and sizing to reduce the need for both heating and cooling. Architects and developers have climate change jobs too!
Buildings can even make it easier to switch to a renewable energy system. One issue with wind and solar is that they are intermittent, and connecting them to the grid can be tricky. Installing solar panels on rooftops or parking lots can help meet energy needs in buildings, particularly for air conditioning, reducing the need for new transmission upgrades. Paired with storage, decentralized energy production also reduces the consequences of grid disruptions like brownouts.
…. if governments map and remove the barriers to private investment
Here is the bad news: transitioning to the buildings of the future won’t be easy. While better buildings tend to be cheaper to operate over their lifetimes, their upfront costs are higher. They can also break down or become obsolete before the extra costs are amortized. Another issue: most buildings were not built with electric appliances and self-generation in mind. They often lack adecuate electric wiring and ignore the ideal orientation for rooftop solar and passive heating and cooling.
Creating demand is not easy: lack of knowledge and cultural resistance reduce the appetite for electric appliances. In rentals, split incentives are also an issue: more comfortable and cheaper buildings benefit the tenants, but the decision to renovate is taken by the owners. Supply can also be an issue. In Europe and North America, contractors are currently struggling with a surge in demand for heat pumps, creating temporary bottlenecks.
Unfortunately, governments can be part of the problem. Connecting rooftop solar to the grid too often requires going through multiple layers of local government and utility approvals. Fossil fuel subsidies and inflated electricity costs decrease incentives to invest in many countries. And most importantly, the region is overwhelmed by informal construction that simply cannot follow building codes and efficiency standards.
Where there is a will, there is a way
Eleven governments in the region have pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, most of them by around 2050. Long-term climate strategies can be used to plan for the transition. For buildings, this can mean mandating that all new buildings come with high-efficiency shells, are fully electrified, and self-generate where appropriate, announcing targets years in advance, and leading the way through green procurement for government buildings. Government can also ban new methane gas hookups and simplify the approval process to connect new renewable power to the grid.
Financial incentives can also help. Options include government-backed low-interest loans, subsidies, tax incentives, and pay-as-you-go models for renovation and efficient appliances. Finally, information and transparency go a long way: certification of low- or zero-carbon appliances and buildings provide transparency to tenants and investors, and awareness campaigns can boost demand for electric appliances.
The transition to a net-zero economy is not trivial. In addition to buildings, countries will need to rethink transport, energy, agriculture, industry, and waste management practices. But the opportunity is a better quality of life, stronger growth, and green job creation. Learn more by reading our report on 15 transformations toward net-zero prosperity.