Climate Activism Can’t Leave Out the Built Environment — It Generates Half of Emissions

Dr. Michael Shank
4 min readApr 3, 2023

With Indonesian islanders suing cement producers for climate damages recently, buildings are getting much-needed attention for their carbon-heavy footprint. The built environment generates nearly 50 percent of annual global emissions. Yet, buildings hardly receive the climate activism commensurate with their impact — despite concrete being the second-most consumed material after water. Lawsuits help change that.

Yes, buildings are getting attention. The industry is busy launching tools to calculate “embodied carbon.” The Inflation Reduction Act proposed in the U.S. Senate allocates billions of dollars to make buildings more efficient and drive low carbon procurement in buildings and construction. The U.S. and European cities are calling for resources to decarbonize buildings as our Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance members have been leading on this for years, and members of the European Parliament are pushing to ensure communities are leading this building transition.

But the built environment isn’t on everyone’s mind. The public isn’t using “building decarbonization” and “net-zero buildings,” nor are they talking about “operational carbon” (the carbon emitted operating a building) and “embodied carbon” (the carbon emitted making a building).

When you talk with the public about climate action, they’ll point to recycling, electric vehicles, solar panels, mass transit, heat pumps and plant-based diets. This has been covered by the press, so it’s easier to reiterate. It’s less likely they’ll point to “the built environment”.

While they might reference a building’s operational emissions — turning lights off, turning down heating or cooling, or weatherizing for energy efficiency — it’s less likely they’ll think about the emissions embodied in their built office or home environments, and those material supply chains and construction processes.

How often do people talk about reducing drywall and insulation’s life-cycle carbon footprint — or steel, concrete or carpet’s footprint? It’s not on the tip of the public’s tongue.

We need to widen the public and policymakers’ lens so that it’s a part of everyday conversations on climate action. So that when we talk about electric vehicles, solar roof tiles or fair-trade and organic fashion, we can add the buildings in which we spend so much time working, sleeping and eating.

And not just for environmental reasons. There are a host of compelling health, energy and workforce benefits when decarbonizing buildings and greening building supply chains.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlighted potential savings in its 2022 report on Decarbonizing Buildings in Cities and Regions. They’re significant. Nearly $200 billion Euro is available in reduced health expenditures, and with every $1 million USD invested in building decarbonization, up to 30 jobs are created. Further, with low-income households facing energy poverty, building decarbonization is a just, equitable investment, especially when community-led.

These benefits extend to more sustainable building supply chains, too, which are not just about good green jobs and healthier environments for people and planet. It’s about building resilience to withstand future shocks, something the EU committed to pursuing post-pandemic. All these wins the public can understand.

Yet, cities — which are closest to the public, familiar with local building stock, and responsible for building and zoning regulations — need help making the case. When asked by the OECD what cities needed from national governments, while 95 percent of cities said financial support to advance pilot projects was top priority, 74 percent of cities asked for help raising awareness among the public. These two needs outpaced other requests. The third request, at 58 percent, was for help removing barriers in national regulation that inhibit local actions.

The first and third points above — on financial and regulatory support, respectively — will get a boost in the U.S. with the Inflation Reduction Act and in the EU from the recently agreed-upon Green New Deal, energy efficiency and energy performance directives, as well as efforts to strengthen them in order to decarbonize all EU buildings.

It’s that second priority, regarding public awareness-raising, that may get short shrift by governments who don’t understand the need.

Buildings could easily be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. How buildings and their materials are sourced, built, operated, renovated and recycled could be as much a priority as single-use plastics.

But the public needs to see it. The good and the bad that goes into a building. Imagine environmental activist Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” but for the story of buildings. Imagine fashion’s carbon labeling but for the built environment.

Buildings need campaigns. With stories that illustrate how life is better in a decarbonized building, from the birth and building of it, to the operating of it.

Stories that illuminate the health benefits, cost savings benefits, and workforce benefits — all the things, all along the supply chain — for everyone and everything involved. From the miner to the manufacturer, the concrete to the countertop, the resourcing to the reusing, the assembling to the dissembling. The simpler and sooner the better.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of Engagement for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.