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Are buildings an important piece of the climate puzzle?

Alan Miller's picture



They inhabit two different worlds—buildings and climate change—both outside and within the World Bank. It should not be that way as the building sector could be central to both mitigation and adaptation efforts.  


Buildings are important for climate mitigation because they account for about 30% of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the International Energy agency (IEA), energy use in this sector is expected to increase globally about 30 % over the next two decades if recent trends continue; however, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report concludes buildings offer by far the largest potential source for low cost reductions in CO2 emissions. The World Bank has many projects and analyses addressing this opportunity including a recent ESMAP (Energy Sector Management Assistance Program) report on the benefits and obstacles to effective building codes. These could address over 60 % of building energy use but remain weak and often unenforced in most Bank client countries.


The ESMAP study cites evidence showing that after a concerted effort to train and upgrade the system of building inspections and code enforcement in China, compliance in large cities was on the order of 80% in 2008. However, most developing countries lack the technical capacity and governance capacity necessary to make sophisticated building codes work. This point is effectively made by the recent joint World Bank/UN study, Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters, which concludes that focusing too much on building codes can be a mistake, creating a false sense of security and even another source of bureaucratic delay and corruption


Modest changes in building design and materials can be equally effective in responding to the adaptation agenda by reducing vulnerability to wind, fires, and other natural disasters likely to increase due to climate change. According to the reinsurer Munich Re, globally, loss-related floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes – trends that can only be explained with reference to climate change. Fortunately, insurance industry studies presented at a November meeting held in the World Bank show that relatively low cost measures including high wind rated shingles, nails in lieu of staples, straps that connect roof, floors and foundations, and doors that open outward can make the difference between complete destruction and little or no impact (dramatic videos are available on-line). And the economics of such measures are compelling; according to the Multi-hazard Mitgation Council, every $1 spent on loss prevention avoids an average of $4 in future losses. 


Experience in developed countries documents the potential for linking efficiency and disaster prevention—what the Institute for Business and Home Safety terms “Going Green and Building Strong”. The IBHS has identified a range of measures which serve both purposes and which are most cost-effective when done together. These include roofing, windows, and doors that are energy efficient and disaster resistant. Both objectives are also best served with a systems approach that addresses the entire building, as selective, partial improvements will be both much less effective (sometimes not at all) and much less cost-effective. Several U.S. states now have incentives for consumers to make such improvements through lower insurance premiums, and the insurance industry has a strong interest in supporting such efforts.


As a significant institutional home for efforts to promote both efficient and climate resilient buildings, the World Bank Group is well placed to promote integrated climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. A good starting point is to make this connection in the Bank’s energy and environment strategies, both currently in draft. More specifically, the expertise and analysis that has gone separately into recent reports on building codes and disaster prevention could be brought together in an examination of opportunities for programmatic and economic synergies. As is emphasized by the authors of Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters, in practice, strategies will vary considerably among countries due to differences in construction practices, climatic conditions, and localized climate risks, but ideally will include a consultative process including insurers and construction companies, civil society as well as governments. Such efforts should be recognized and supported with funding from the increasing resources made available for climate change adaptation, which should help encourage interest and commitment from Bank client countries.