Strategise, digitise and decarbonise: how to slash building emissions

Buildings currently contribute 25% of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions but can become more sustainable through digital retrofits
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Buildings have a pivotal role to play in the race to net zero. The built environment – which includes the design, construction and operation of structures, features and facilities – is responsible for a quarter of the UK’s CO2 emissions. Most of these emissions come from the energy needed to heat, cool and power buildings, which is responsible for 19% of the UK’s carbon footprint.

The UK has some of the world’s oldest building stock, and waiting for them to reach the end of their lifecycle to replace them with more energy-efficient buildings is not a sustainable option. It’s predicted that 80% of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 already exist, continuing to emit CO2 as they age. Without an immediate and rapid push to retrofit and decarbonise existing buildings, net-zero targets will be missed. This would be a huge missed opportunity for the UK to play its part in helping to mitigate the growing and visible impacts of climate change. 

What is sustainable retrofitting? 

Sustainable retrofitting means reducing operational carbon emissions in existing buildings, using digital technology to reduce the energy used to power, heat and cool buildings. It does not include the carbon embodied in building materials or the processes involved in their manufacture, transport and installation, or during construction, maintenance and replacement/disposal.

Schneider Electric provides end-to-end solutions for businesses looking to retrofit their buildings and start their green buildings transition. Kas Mohammed, the company’s vice president of Digital Energy for the UK and Ireland, urges businesses to take immediate action. He says: “The evidence is clear: the UK must renovate buildings and invest in decarbonisation technology to meet its net-zero targets and pave the way for a sustainable future.” 

Energy efficiency improvements within homes and buildings are not happening fast enough and must be accelerated to meet the UK’s 2050 net-zero commitments. Across the UK, key drivers of change are coming together to accelerate the transition. 

Firstly, the tightening of Energy Performance Certification (EPC) regulations by the UK government means that commercial building landlords are on a countdown to improve energy efficiency. Since 1 April this year, non-domestic buildings without an EPC rating of E or above have not been allowed to be let. By 2027, these buildings will need to achieve an EPC of C and by 2030, a B rating. Landlords missing these targets may find it harder to attract tenants and could face financial penalties, as well as missing out on the average 4% increased rents associated with a step improvement in EPC. 

With most existing buildings expected to still be in use in 2050, a swathe of the UK’s building stock must now undergo a programme of sustainable refurbishment and retrofitting. Current EPC data shows that there’s still a long way to go; around 70-80% of the UK’s building stock will need to be upgraded in order to meet 2030 regulations. However, those that focus these efforts solely on achieving EPC compliance will find themselves at an acute disadvantage. 

Secondly, energy efficiency measures help reduce energy bills and operational costs. Energy is a significant operating expense at a time when energy prices are soaring. An office’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system can account for 40% or more of the total energy consumed. Hence, a more significant financial incentive exists to take action and find ways to drive down costs. Technologies such as LED lighting, insulation, electrification and HVAC improvements can all lead to cost-effective decarbonisation in existing buildings. 

Mohammed says businesses should invest in the future of their buildings now to reap significant long-term benefits. “The energy crisis has highlighted a strong business case for managing energy use and implementing sustainable practices,” he says. “A long-term view when investing in decarbonisation technology is needed: the benefits of pursuing sustainability may not be immediate but increasing energy costs mean that the return on investment is greater and the technology will pay for itself over shorter periods.” 

The energy crisis has highlighted a strong business case for managing energy use and implementing sustainable practices

While the need for and benefits of change are clear – particularly in light of the recent energy crisis – research by Schneider Electric highlights some obstacles stopping businesses from taking action. A poll of UK and Irish business leaders revealed that 82% believe the energy crisis will impact their ability to reach emissions reduction targets. Of this figure, 39% said they couldn’t obtain suitable products and solutions to decarbonise their buildings, 38% couldn’t find useful advice and 19% lacked the skills to implement change. 

However, significant decarbonisation of existing buildings is achievable. “There is no need for a silver bullet; there are existing technologies available today that help promote sustainable operations and save energy costs,” says Mohammed. 

Schneider Electric adopts a three-step approach to retrofitting and reducing the carbon emissions of buildings: strategise, digitise and decarbonise. That first step is important to define different levels of technological implementation, impact on emissions reductions, operational disruption in buildings and time to reach ROI.

The next step focuses on digitisation and involves measuring and monitoring building energy and carbon with connected data to establish an emissions baseline and record reductions. For major retrofits, carbon tracking using building information modelling is also enabled. 

The final step focuses on decarbonisation. Here, various Schneider technologies and solutions are implemented to reduce emissions. These include measuring and monitoring energy and carbon, introducing automation to reduce energy usage and emissions, purchasing off-site renewables, upgrading building systems and infrastructure, e.g. lighting system daylight optimisation, installing onsite renewables and microgrids, and tracking and limiting embodied carbon. 

The energy used in the operation of existing buildings represents the most significant carbon impact from the built environment and, if the government is to meet its zero carbon target by 2050, the retrofit of existing building stock must be a key priority. Then, businesses can reap sustainability benefits that will help them future-proof themselves against long-term energy market volatility. In this case, what is good for the planet is also good for the bottom line. 

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