CO2 emissions from commercial buildings

Why is it important to reduce carbon emissions from buildings?

Global CO2 emissions are hitting new highs with every passing year, and carbon emissions from buildings are a big part of the problem. In 2013, the atmospheric CO2 concentration crossed the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold for the first time in a million years. From then onwards, things have only gotten worse. Today, we are at approximately 416 ppm. If we extrapolate the future growth from historical trends, we should hit 450 ppm in a decade. Experts believe that CO2 at 450 ppm can cause irreversible damage to our climate. This means we all have to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions now. 

Estimated growth of CO2 emissions

              (Graph showing estimated growth of CO2 concentration in the next 80 years. Source: The Keeling Curve)

Causes of CO2 emissions – where is it all coming from?

To be able to reduce CO2 emissions, we need to know what the causes of CO2 emissions are. 

A lot of things produce carbon emissions. Some are natural, ranging from volcanoes to decomposition; but most are man-made, ranging from deforestation to burning of coal, oil, and gas across various industries. Research from The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that approximately 90% (32.1 billion tonnes) of the atmospheric CO2 can be attributed to energy consumption. This includes the lamps in our rooms and the HVAC systems running in huge buildings.

Industries account for 9% of the CO2 emissions, whereas agriculture and waste are responsible for 0.5% and 0.1% respectively.

The different sources of man-made athmospheric carbon emissions

(Graph showing the different sources of man-made atmospheric CO2. Source: Paris Reality Check)

Why is energy the primary source?

From computers to cars, and from shopping malls to cement factories; everything consumes energy. The more energy we burn, the more CO2 enters the air.

One of the major contributors to energy-related carbon emissions are old buildings (36% of global energy consumption). This is because these buildings don’t have any control over the energy they consume. Regardless of the outside weather, or their occupancy, these old buildings continue to burn through energy at the default settings. HVAC systems in these buildings continue to run at full throttle even if the building is empty. This is one of the reasons why carbon emissions from buildings are such a big part of the problem.

CO2 emissions by country

China accounts for 28% of the CO2 emissions (the highest), whereas US and India account for 14% and 7% respectively. Collectively, the three account for almost half of the world’s CO2 emissions. Norway’s contribution is around 0.14%.

CO2 emissions by country

(Graph showing CO2 production by country. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

But if we look at carbon emissions per capita, Norwegian residents account for twice as much CO2 emissions as Chinese residents, and seven times as much as Indian residents.

Impact of increasing CO2 emissions on climate change 

Plants and ocean absorb up to 55% of the surplus atmospheric CO2. The remaining 45% has nowhere to go and affects our planet in more ways than one:

  1. Atmosphere: Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are responsible for regulating the temperature of our planet. Without them, Earth would be frozen and inhabitable. Too much of them, and the planet will be more like Venus, where the temperature revolves around 400-degree Celsius.
  2.  Oceans: Approximately 30% of the atmospheric CO2 gets dissolved in oceanic water to form carbonic acid. This increases the acidity of the ocean, which decreases the ability of marine life to get the necessary calcium from the water. (The oceanic acidity has risen by 30% since 1750)
  3. Land: Research at Stanford indicates that if the CO2 emissions continued to rise in the same manner, pollution-related deaths could increase by tens of thousands. Another research shows that increased levels of atmospheric CO2 can also cause human cognition to slow down.

How to reduce carbon emissions from buildings

According to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, the building sector accounts for almost 39% of CO2 emissions. See below:

Carbon emissions from buildings are a big part of the problem

(Graph showing CO2 emissions by industry. Source: Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction)

For building owners, this number warrants action; especially if the building is old and is using manual HVAC control. A smart HVAC and building management system can go a long way in reducing energy consumption and the building’s carbon footprint. One common misconception regarding conversion to a smart building is that it’s not possible without a major structural overhaul and huge spending. The reality is that your building can become green and smart without undergoing any expensive, disruptive processes. Simply retrofitting existing equipment can make your building smart, which will make it more energy efficient, which will eventually reduce your carbon footprint. Here are a few steps that are normally involved in the conversion of an old building into a smart one:

  • Retrofitting existing equipment: As mentioned above, a smart building conversion doesn’t mean you have to ditch your existing hardware for new equipment. A smart retrofit often only requires installation of a new HVAC controller, which connects with your existing equipment (after some reconfigurations) to regulate your energy use.
  • Air quality and occupancy sensors: The new HVAC controller can feed off the data coming from different air quality and occupancy sensors to make real-time, sound decisions.
  • Automated HVAC control: If your HVAC system functions with manual set points, it will never adapt its functioning based on building occupancy, outside weather, or air quality. An automated HVAC system makes smart, energy-efficient decisions regarding ventilation and cooling
  • Real-time energy utilization monitoring/analysis: Smart buildings also provide interactive dashboards with informative visualizations that yield actionable insights. These insights can be used to forecast future energy utilization and identify possible saving avenues.
  • Setting up automated checks/notifications: Smart building management solutions also give you the ability to check for abnormal conditions or equipment failure and send alerts/notifications.
  • Connecting all building appliances so that they function as a giant organism: A smart building is a giant organism consisting of many electronic devices (sensors, adapters, appliances) working in tandem with each other. This ensures real-time, smooth flow of information throughout the building, which in turn ensures efficient usage of energy.

Final Word:

When we talk about CO2 emissions, we normally think cars, trucks, and industrial chimneys. We never consider CO2 emissions from buildings, because we never consider energy consumption to be a factor. It’s high time we realize just how much we can reduce the atmospheric carbon concentration by optimizing buildings for energy efficiency.

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