By Michael Shank and Irene Garcia

This article was written for by Irene Garcia, Built Environment Lead, and Michael Shank, Director of Engagement, both with the 
Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. In it, they outline a six-step plan – illustrated by examples of how these steps have been implemented in world cities – suitable for any municipality to adopt in the efforts to transform its built environment. And in such a way that addresses today’s common urban socio-economic and environmental challenges.

The work of decarbonising buildings has been piecemeal.

Early out of the emissions reduction gate was a focus on energy efficiency. As 20th century buildings were leaky and inefficient, the return on investment in tightening up the envelope was obvious.

We’ve come a long way since then, moving from an operational carbon focus – on energy efficiency, zero waste, and renewable energy – to an embodied carbon focus that tackles the footprint of the building’s concrete foundations and everything above.

What is needed now is to see the built environment as an interconnected system. That means when a city administration is decarbonising buildings – to reduce operational and embodied emissions – they’re reflecting on how to improve housing affordability and accessibility, building workers’ safety and salary, health and biodiversity, a building’s ability to adapt and be climate resilient, and more.

The focus now is on a building’s impact on an entire ecosystem, human and environmental, and the need to centre justice throughout.

The Six Steps to Decarbonisation

There are many routes for decarbonising buildings. That depends on a city’s situation, resources, maturity of the local market, workforce skills, etc. Cities are constantly thinking through what’s feasible and implementable, legally possible and politically palatable, with policies that target high volume activity, and the right mix of incentives and requirements.

Cities can use the six steps below to support their vetting processes.

Six steps to decarbonisation -
Verkkosaaren green block, Helsinki (cropped). Image credit: Nomaji

1. Secure Political Leadership

Buildings are having a moment as the world recognises their culpability for over 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and their role in housing crises. If there was a time to secure political will for this work, it’s now.

Cities love being the first to do anything, so encouraging some healthy competition might work. The City of Ithaca in New York State, USA, for example, announced three years ago that it wanted to be America’s first fully building-decarbonised city by 2030, and started work then on decarbonising 100% of its buildings. In 2021, Lille, France, the metropolitan council signed the Lille Low Carbon Pact to bring together the construction sector – developers, social landlords, architects, and designers – to set a path to make Lille a low carbon city.

This is the leadership we need. But it’s not just environmental leadership. Yes, we need the likes of Ithaca wanting to be first with a 100% decarbonised built environment – but one that’s also 100% affordable, accessible, healthy, and sourced and built by well-paid workers.

The opportunity then is to involve the whole of government in ensuring this, as many city departments have a stake. This is what intersectional leadership looks like: convening across social, economic, and environmental sectors. It’s a new way of working for many bureaucracies but a necessary one.

2. Engage All Stakeholders Early

Building decarbonisers may not see themselves in the work of housing affordability, workers’ rights, or biodiversity. By including these stakeholders early, we increase buy-in, we keep climate atop people’s list of concerns, and we avoid the conflicts that come later from non-inclusive building projects.

In doing so, the return on investment is high. It’ll save human and financial resources later. This will also ensure that decarbonisation addresses multiple pressing socio-economic challenges, not just emissions.

Nantes, France, launched the Grand Debate ‘Shaping our Cities: Let’s Invent Tomorrow’s Life Together last year, engaging 30,000 residents and professionals from 24 municipalities. The focus: a collective roadmap on urban development with nearly 100 actions adopted by the metropolitan council. Among them, the promotion of city-wide reuse, especially in construction. Now, city officials are exploring how to turn this into reality. This is how you engage the community.

3. Start with Scalable Initiatives to Drive Large-scale Change

Don’t wait for perfection or it’ll never happen.

By starting with smaller projects, we stimulate demand, move markets, and change mindsets by illustrating what’s possible. Once we have political and private sector will in place, it’s possible to develop policies with new carrots and new sticks.

In Portland, Oregon, their sweeping Climate Emergency Workplan had bite-sized policies like “Deconstruction Programs”, requiring pre-1940 houses to be salvaged not demolished, and “Concrete Embodied Carbon Threshold Requirements” to create a maximum global warming potential value for concrete in city construction.

In Helsinki, Finland, a recent competition called ‘Verkkosaaren vähähiilinen viherkortteli’ challenged developers to submit innovative ideas to address buildings’ carbon impact. It worked. Proposals reduced footprints by 50%. More competitions are planned. Helsinki, meanwhile, is implementing a carbon footprint limit for new residential buildings and tightening them every year. This is how you scale change.

De Warren in Amsterdam uses behind-the-scenes storytelling to create interest in buildings that prioritise decarbonisation. Image credit: Instagram / wonenindewarren

4. Focus on Extending Life

A successfully decarbonised building means that it’s extending the life of its inhabitants, socially and economically. That means buildings are healthier and more affordable and we’re renovating existing building stock to be future resilient before jumping to new builds.

Amsterdam is tackling a major renovation challenge. By actively engaging with stakeholders such as SMEs, knowledge institutions, schools, and housing corporations, the city is creating a better understanding of the possibilities of renovating with circular and bio-based insulation materials for private and social housing retrofits. In doing so, they aim to improve health and reduce carbon footprints. This is what life-extending leadership looks like.

5. Misstep Collaboratively

The support of peers and collective brainstorming with trial and error is immensely valuable. The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance recently launched a guide dedicated to decarbonising the construction sector within Spanish cities. During the launch, Dolores Huertas, the director of Green Building Council Spain, said: “Let’s embrace early missteps, but let’s make them collaboratively.” That’s exactly right. By failing together, we learn together.

6. Tell Stories of the Process

If we wait for a perfect product, the public will never hear about it. We need to ‘story tell’ each step of the way so that we’re bringing the public along.

The De Warren building project in Amsterdam illustrates well how behind-the-scenes storytelling can offer an overview of how it all happened. So does Helsinki, of their efforts to be a wood city. More of these kinds of stories are needed.

Altogether, these six steps can help the building decarbonisation work succeed. We know what’s technically needed to decarbonise buildings. What’s required now is the socio-political on-ramping of that work. That’s the driver for change – and that’s the opportunity. Time to seize it.