Climate Action: Levers for accelerating the built environment transformation

Now is the time to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon built environment. The award-winning architect Ed Mazria and Erin McDade present some of the key actions to implement to transform the sector and quickly wean OECD countries off fossil fuels. Banner image: Shutterstock/metamorworks
Climate Action: Levers for accelerating the built environment transformation

At the same time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued its most dire warning to date on the impending catastrophic consequences of unchecked emissions—and we work to advance the development of sustainable, resilient, and zero-carbon communities—we are reminded once again of the disastrous security and humanitarian costs of fossil fuel dependency as witnessed by the war in Ukraine. As we face the intertwined crises of climate change, development, and energy security, we must accelerate the unprecedented and explosive growth of efficient, zero-carbon built environments and renewable energy generation: the promising solution for both ecological and political stability in the 21st century.

Today, on average, 50% of the total electricity produced by OECD countries is generated from non-CO2 emitting sources. Wind and solar energy are the cheapest source of electricity generation for much of the world today, and getting less expensive each year. OECD solar and wind power generation are growing exponentially, with solar generation doubling from 2018 to 2021, and wind from 2015 to 2021. If OECD countries continue to add wind and solar electricity at their present exponential rate, total OECD electricity generation will be zero-carbon before 2030.


Fossil fuel-generated power prices depend on fuel availability and cost, geopolitics and the cost of power plant construction and operation. Solar and wind, on the other hand, are delivered free worldwide, have low operating costs, use minimal rare-earths or rare ingredients for generation, and can’t be withheld or weaponised for geopolitical purposes.

The future lies in rapidly scaling renewable energy generation coupled with the electrification of buildings and transportation, energy efficiency measures for buildings, and low-to-zero carbon construction materials and infrastructure. With an impressive foundation in place, now is the time to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon built environment by implementing the following actions:

New Buildings and Developments

Adopt current zero-carbon building codes, standards and policies: this ensures that all new buildings are highly efficient, use no on-site fossil fuels (buildings are all electric), and generate or procure enough renewable energy to meet building demand. Zero-carbon new buildings also help accelerate the transition of the electricity grid to 100% renewable energy, while increasing energy democracy and resilience in the face of natural and geopolitical disasters.

Existing Buildings and Developments

Enact policies at building intervention points that accelerate energy efficiency upgrades, shifts to electric or district heating systems powered by carbon-free renewable energy sources, and the generation and/or procurement of carbon-free renewable energy.

Building intervention points help mitigate the cost barriers and disruption associated with building renovation work and include point-of-sale; building system and equipment replacement; capital improvement cycles; zoning or use changes; and life-safety and resiliency upgrades.

In most cities, there are also relatively few big buildings that are responsible for about 50% of city-wide building sector emissions, and a very large number of small buildings responsible for the remaining 50%. Policy levers for emissions reductions will be different for big buildings and small buildings:

  • Big buildings: implement date-certain energy upgrade policies (no later than 2030) allowing ample time for alignment with building capital improvement cycles. Due to the relatively small number of buildings affected, these policies can be implemented with minimal risk of overtaxing local labour, equipment and financing resources.
  • Small buildings: implement energy upgrade policies and incentives at building intervention points like point-of-sale, point-of-renovation or equipment replacement. Alignment with intervention points also creates an even and steady distribution of upgrades, which establishes and ensures the longevity of the job market, thus creating new local jobs, market growth and tax revenue.

Policies that overcome the timing and financial concerns of building owners and occupants are not only easier to pass into legislation, but also easier to implement, enforce and build upon.

Embodied Carbon

Enact policies and incentives that accelerate existing building reuse and renovation, use recycled and low-carbon or carbon-sequestering materials, design for deconstruction, and reduce emissions by designing carbon-sequestering sites and landscapes.

The recent movement toward electrification and reducing and sequestering carbon in the built environment, coupled with accelerating the growth of renewable energy generation, presents an extraordinary opportunity to transform the sector and quickly wean OECD countries off fossil fuels.

The 4th OECD Roundtable on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions is taking place on 12 April 2022. Register at this link.
And read also the OECD report Brick by Brick : Building Better Housing Policies, which brings together evidence, international experience and policy insights for the design of housing policies. Emphasis is placed on three broad aspects: inclusiveness, efficiency and sustainability.