Making climate impact visible: pathways to the 1.5 °C building

Newsletter Posts / Contributions

Hannah Helmke, Founder and CEO of right°

Climate change is probably the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. By now, most people have realised that we finally need to tackle climate change with all available means. And the real estate industry has a key role to play, as it accounts for about one third of total CO2 emissions. But hardly anyone knows what environmental impact the operation of their own home or investment in residential property really has – and which mitigation measures are most efficient from a climate protection point of view.

Carbon efficiency is usually measured in terms of CO2 emissions in metric tons. But who has any idea what that actually means? A return flight from Frankfurt to Rome equates to about half a ton of CO2 emissions. But is that a lot or a little? And what impact does a metric ton of CO2 emissions have on climate change? It becomes even more difficult when you consider that the timing of CO2 emissions also plays an important role in the impact a ton of CO2 has on global warming.

Emission levels alone tell us very little

In the face of such complicated calculations, the impact of different levels of carbon emissions remains almost incomprehensible. And that’s despite the fact that the Paris Agreement even set a carbon emissions budget to give the world a 50% chance to limit warming to 1.5 °C. In order stand a chance of limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5 °C, a little less than 300 billion tons of “permissible” emissions remain. The precise impact of one ton of CO2 emissions on the climate remains very, very abstract. In fact, setting such an apparently high budget actually tends to encourage a more careless approach and discourages them from taking personal responsibility for the climate. By the way, the correct physical unit for measuring global warming is not kilograms or metric tons, but degrees Celsius (°C).

Clarity counts

This is why new methods for illustrating climate impact are becoming increasingly important. The hot topic right now is “temperature alignment”. This approach takes the remaining emissions budget as the basis for an emissions reduction model and uses it to evaluate how much the planet would warm if the whole world had the same climate performance as the entity or portfolio under consideration. As a result, instead of just seeing that the operation of a particular residential property generates X metric tons of CO2 in period Y, temperature alignment allows us to understand whether the entity or portfolio meets the target of a maximum of 1.5 °C of global warming – or not.

Since these climate pathways or climate budgets are calculated for all economic entities, we can also compare the climate impacts of entire companies, industries, assets and asset classes.

Such transparency can be particularly important for the real estate sector, which, as a climate-intensive sector, will be strategically important for combating climate change. This applies equally to new buildings, where various scenarios and the resulting climate warming can be simulated at the planning stage, as well as to existing properties, where their climate impact can be made apparent via the emission intensity of the property.

Simulation makes mitigation measures more effective

What is the climate impact of the building I own or live in? Is it a 3.0 °C, a 2.0 °C or a Paris-compliant 1.5 °C building? If it doesn’t comply with the Paris Agreement’s target, it might be worth carrying out an energy retrofit. But where should you start? Temperature alignment offers a solution for this as well, because it can also be used to simulate a wide range of renovation measures. The climate impact of an individual measure depends not only on the CO2 savings it delivers, but also on the timing of the measure and the order in which a package of measures is implemented, because, after all, it is seldom possible to remedy all deficiencies at the same time. What counts for the climate is not the emissions on some future day X, but the sum of the emissions over the entire period up to that date.

With just a few clicks of the mouse, temperature alignment-based metrics allow us to determine which measures would be the most effective in order to make the renovation as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible – including from an economic perspective. It may be a new heating system that transforms the building from a 2.5 °C to a 1.5 °C building, or it may be new facade insulation – or both, but in which order? Using temperature alignment in any simulations certainly makes such decisions easier than ever before.

The translation of emissions into °C thus enables property owners to specifically address the impact of their properties on global warming and take prompt action to position their properties for a long-term and 1.5 °C compliant future. Try it out for yourself.

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