A guide to decarbonizing the built environment

Having spent my entire career working in real estate, it is simultaneously humbling and daunting to acknowledge that buildings account for around 40% of total global energy use and emissions. 

I suspect that decarbonization will profoundly impact almost every aspect of my personal and professional life – but with creativity, innovation and the use of technology I believe we can deliver the transformation required. Below, I set out a priority list of issues in our built environment where collaboration between companies and governments is urgently needed to accelerate progress towards our common goals.

Global share of buildings’ and construction’s energy use and emissions, 2019. Image: Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction

Urban urgency

Cities account for 75% of global emissions and are often most exposed to the consequences of climate change. Of the world’s 17 largest cities, 14 are coastal, making them particularly vulnerable to climate-related extreme weather events. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ takes on new meaning as cities are thrust into the frontline of the battle to reduce climate impacts and mitigate their consequences. Regulations around building construction and operation, and planning policies that promote sustainable transport, are among the key areas in which forward-thinking cities like New York are leading the charge.


Pandemic-induced lockdowns showed us the benefits of reduced vehicle movements. Emissions fell 88% across Europe during quarantine. Restrictions – and eventual bans – on combustion engine vehicles are being introduced in cities to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, often starting with public transport infrastructure. A Clean Air Zone introduced in Birmingham, UK, has materially altered travel patterns (see figure below). Cycle lanes introduced in Paris as a response to COVID are being retained permanently. Carbon accounting must increasingly sit at the heart of policymaking around urban transportation.

Source: World Economic Forum
Author: Mark Edward Rose