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Can high construction rates and sustainability ambitions be combined?

The housing shortage is large in Sweden, and the climate ambitions are at least as large. This creates a potential paradox for the development of society in the country. The environmental impact of buildings is combated at several levels: initial construction, management/use as well as demolition and circularity. It is not impossible to greatly increase the rate of construction and at the same time reduce emissions, but measures and awareness are required. There is constant development in the area, from the turn of the year, for example, climate declarations are required for newly built houses. Read more about why and how emissions can be reduced in the construction and property industry, a must in order to be in line with our ambitious goals.

In a Novus survey commissioned by the Sweden Green Building Council from 2021, “Knowledge and attitudes around the construction and property industry’s sustainability work”, it emerged that there is a great deal of ignorance about the construction, the operation, and the indoor climate of buildings.  Even if four out of five Swedes identify themselves as environmentally and climate conscious, the industry’s extensive work to generate less emissions is unknown to many. The fact is that properties account for approximately 40 percent of Sweden’s energy consumption. Swedish buildings also account for just over a fifth of Sweden’s emissions of greenhouse gases seen from a life cycle perspective. In addition, the sector’s use of goods and services produced in other countries contributes to these emissions as well. Imported goods and services amount to around one-eighth of the emissions that Swedish consumption gives rise to in other countries. In order to be in line with the Paris Agreement to keep the increase in the global average temperature well below 2 degrees and with the aim of not exceeding 1.5 degrees, the pace needs to be quickly changed in the sustainability work. Long-term value creation, both for an individual property owner and for society at large, is connected to how we cope with the transition.


Construction activities (new construction and demolition) account for around 50 percent of the total emissions from the industry. It is primarily the use of materials in construction that causes the emissions, and more specifically mainly from the manufacture of building materials such as cement and steel. 30 Percent of the emissions come from property management, such as heating. The remaining 20 percent comes from other property management, which includes renovations and conversions.


The real estate industry’s work with the climate is primarily based on the UN’s global goals and guidelines for sustainable development. Of the 17 global goals, a number of these have been identified as particularly important for the industry to work on over the next few years. Within these goals are sub-areas that affect climate impact, such as energy, transport, circular economy, urban environment and sustainability. Measures are required to be able to reconcile a high construction rate with Sweden’s climate goals. In Sweden, construction is now at a level that has not been relevant since the 1970s, when the million-dollar programs were built. Even when it comes to upgrading existing buildings and developing infrastructure, the need is great. Reconciling a high construction rate with Sweden’s climate goals is, and will continue to be, a major challenge.


The construction and property sector includes actors from all stages of a building’s life cycle, from when they are built, used, renovated and until the building is demolished. The construction industry has drawn up a common roadmap to reach net zero emissions in 2045 within the framework of the government initiative “Fossfilfritt Sweden”. Actors along the entire value chain have shown a great interest in creating business opportunities based on climate change.


Different ways to reduce the climate impact from properties


Actors in the construction and property sector have great opportunities to influence climate emissions from buildings from a life cycle perspective. From the turn of the year 1 January 2022, climate declarations are required for newly built houses. This means that a building’s emissions of greenhouse gases from a life cycle perspective must be reported, which makes it possible to set strict climate requirements.


According to the Housing Authority, measures in heating and material production are particularly important for the sector to reach net-zero emissions in the long term. Possible measures are in the following areas:


Materials – reduced use of materials in buildings, more climate-smart production of materials, and replacement of materials with more sustainable alternatives. One way to reduce the environmental impact of buildings can be to increase the proportion of bio-based materials, where wooden frames are an example. Wood is a renewable material where the wood itself does not contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as wood binds carbon.


Transport – reduced transport, transfer to modes of transport with less climate impact and increased electrification. Today, domestic transport accounts for around a third of Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions.


Energy and heating – energy efficiency through renovations, higher energy requirements and reduced use of fossil fuels for district heating production. New technology such as AI and energy storage can bring new opportunities to create climate-smart energy solutions. There are many initiatives in energy that can immediately reduce costs and the negative climate impact. Other efforts require larger investments and can take years, depending on the type of action, to recoup the investment.


Waste – design of buildings for increased flexibility and possibility of rebuilding and increased possibility of material recycling.


Building needs – reduced need for space per person through, for example, the sharing economy, activity-based and flexible offices and a higher degree of flexibility in the housing market.


Examples of other important parameters to achieve the sustainability goals:


· Measurability and transparency – it is important to build a culture around the measurement and management of sustainability. Collecting data provides knowledge about what causes the greatest climate impact and forms a basis for relevant targets. By putting numbers on what is done in combination with follow-up of results and transparency, the probability that desirable results will be achieved increases.


· Knowledge and everyday routines for the operation – increased knowledge of what is consumed and an understanding of a property’s characteristics. For example, it also deals with technical knowledge around control and optimization in the systems used.


· Develop governance and create collaboration


· Switch to renewable energy with low emissions


· Reduce the effect, store energy and use AI – by using AI, artificial intelligence, you can control and optimize the operation and avoid power peaks.


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