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Is sustainable urban development possible? The ROCKWOOL perspective

ROCKWOOL NA employer branding project, office, and employee photos. Alejandra Nieto, Research and Development (R&D) Project Manager
Alejandra Nieto
11 October 2019

The need for cities and the building industry to embrace UN SDG 11 with green building practices that help to counter the impact of rapid urban growth

PNG: Driving superior energy efficiency and resilience in buildings SDG11 sustainable development goals blog post hero image. (Version 1)

The Short Version: Sustainable development is here to stay. We know we have the potential to reduce the broader environmental impact from the built environment when many believe buildings hold the key to solving the climate crisis. Today, building our homes using green building practices can help remove the challenges of energy poverty for low-income families. Stone wool insulation is one solution to deliver on UN SDG 11 by helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve indoor air quality and ultimately contribute toward the sustainable cities and communities of tomorrow.

An introduction to sustainability in the building industry

The building industry has recognized that sustainability is more than a passing fad. Increasing interest in green building certification programs like LEED, for example, is a sign that efforts to create healthy indoor environments and preserve natural systems to combat urban sprawl are a reality. In fact, the LEED for Cities and Communities rating system was developed to provide a framework for planning, designing, measuring and managing the economic and environmental conditions on a community level.

As of 2018, the United States led the world in LEED-certified buildings and Canada finished third, behind China. The impact of these sustainable development initiatives is significant in that the 37,000 North American projects alone are providing significant savings in energy and water consumption, increased recycling of construction waste and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

What is sustainable development?

While the term “sustainable development” can be interpreted in many different ways, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) defines it this way:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

For those of us in the construction industry, we can extrapolate it to mean building with a focus on reducing the broader environmental impact and footprint of buildings by preventing or limiting greenhouse gas emissions and excessive energy consumption. Green building practices have been around for generations now, but what’s changed most recently is the formation of a concerted movement toward sustainable development and investment by cities in green infrastructure.

For example, New York City recently signed into law the Climate Mobilization Act requiring new levels of energy savings in the built environment. Bill 1253 (Local Law 97 of 2019) is just one example of those NYC changes, requiring existing buildings to renovate or retrofit using energy-efficient upgrades such as high-performance windows, smart HVAC systems, and other energy-conserving construction products.

What’s driving this sustainable development? There are numerous contributing factors, including:

  • Demand from homeowners and building owners who are concerned about the risks of climate change,
  • Governments setting stricter requirements for environmental protection, and
  • The launch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as part of a formalized 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 goals in total addressing a range of issues from poverty and hunger to education, justice, and SDG 11.

 

What is UN Sustainable Development Goal 11?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11) is focused on Sustainable Cities and Communities with the ambition to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. SDG 11 recognizes the impact that urbanization has on the planet, placing unprecedented pressure on water and energy resources, and contributing to waste accumulation.

The UN points out that half of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – currently lives in cities and that by 2030 that number will increase to 5 billion or 60 percent of the population! This is in stark contrast to urban life of a little more than a century ago when an estimated 13 percent of people lived in cities.

PNG: Chart analyzing population growth across five North American metropolitan cities from 1980 to 2018. SDG11 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

North American city growth has been on a steady incline since 1980 and by 2019 the population across five metropolitan areas reached more than 23 million putting increased pressure on the need for sustainable development.

Urban development drives growth

The UN defines cities as hubs of commerce, transportation, and government, though there are no standardized criteria for determining their geographic boundaries. It’s no surprise then that people flock to cities in search of opportunity.

The fact is that cities have become the world’s growth engine, generating more than 80 percent of global GDP. For decades, millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty by migrating to urban areas - the UN predicts that by 2030 there will be 706 cities with one million inhabitants or more. Interestingly, 95 percent of urban expansion in the coming decades will be happening in the developing world.

Importantly, however, urban development does not always mean positive growth. The flip side of this trend is that as populations are concentrated in cities, so too are the risks associated with urban living, including pollution, waste accumulation, availability of affordable housing, and health hazards such as the spread of communicable diseases.

By 2050, with the urban population doubling its current size, nearly 70 out of every 100 people in the world will live in cities.

The World Bank Group

What are the biggest challenges cities are facing?

The facts show that there is a direct correlation between urban development and climate change. Growth is leading to increased levels of urban energy consumption and as a result, pollution that is impacting the air quality. Consider the following:

  • Cities only account for 3 to 4 percent of the Earth’s land, yet are responsible for between 60 and 80 percent of energy consumption,
  • 75 percent of carbon emissions globally come from cities, and
  • It’s been predicted by The World Bank Group that by 2030, climate change and natural disasters may cost cities worldwide $314 billion each year, and push 77 million more urban residents into poverty.

With this data in mind, it is incumbent on city planners and builders, and the construction industry as a whole, to embrace the concept of sustainable urban development if we want to help preserve the world for future generations. Yes, that is a bold statement. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. If we follow the UN’s lead, we can feel confident that we’ll be part of the solution rather than contributors to the problem.

PNG: 60% of the world's population will live in cities by 2030 - rapid urban growth and development. SDG11 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Need further proof of urbanization? Projections suggested that as much as 60 percent of the world's population will live in cities by 2030.

How can sustainable city development be achieved?

There are myriad supporting programs available to building design and construction professionals focused on sustainable city development. We mentioned LEED at the outset of this article, which encapsulates a whole host of strategies for limiting the environmental footprint of a structure and its occupants. Passive House is another example that focuses primarily on passive enclosure design strategies to reduce energy demand and usage. Some of the others include specific residential programs around home insulation and energy retrofit or renovation exercises, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program and a number of local government initiatives for energy conservation.

Improved insulation is where the real potential lies. Insulation is an effective way to reduce energy consumption in homes leading to reduced energy costs according to the EPA. By extension, it can also help reduce energy poverty. Improving the energy efficiency of a home with green building techniques and materials can contribute to more affordable housing and reduce the energy burden on low-income households. In fact, some even believe that buildings hold one of the keys to solving the climate crisis.

This makes considering new construction and developments important but so is renovating and retrofitting existing buildings. More than 50 percent of today’s buildings will still be in use in 2050 (75-90 percent across the 36 member countries of the OECD - The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), which equates to 207 billion square meters of building space according to the International Energy Agency! The potential result of renovating these buildings would be reducing the CO2 footprint by as much as 70 percent for the future of our global building stock.

Buildings hold the largest climate action potential and within that energy efficiency is the cheapest path. Buildings are the ultimate climate solvers.

Emma Stewart

Director, Urban Efficiency & Climate, World Resources Institute, Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities

ROCKWOOL embraces sustainable development goals

At ROCKWOOL, we’ve put an incredible amount of energy at the corporate level into living the sustainable development movement. Not only are our products the perfect option to deliver modern sustainable living, but it’s also just part of how we operate every day. You could say that sustainable development goals are part of our DNA. We’re also incredibly proud of our efforts to support affordable and resilient housing and reduce energy poverty.

In 2018, ROCKWOOL began collaborating with C40 – a network of the world’s largest cities representing one-quarter of the global economy committed to addressing climate change. The immediate goal is for each member city to adopt comprehensive, measurable climate action plans that align with Paris Accord goals by 2020.

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At an operational level, the stone wool products we manufacture and sell everyday support energy-efficient design and construction by reducing exposure to excessive heat, cold, and dampness. Our solutions effectively insulate walls, ceilings, floors, and attics to limit unwanted heat loss or gain. In addition, stone wool insulation helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy costs, improve indoor air quality and ultimately improve comfort for occupants within homes, buildings and other infrastructure.

So, is sustainable urban development important? Absolutely. Plenty of companies will say they make supporting sustainable cities and communities a priority and will point to sustainability plans as evidence. ROCKWOOL doesn’t have separate business and sustainability strategies though, because for us they are one in the same. Our organization is driven by a passion for converting sustainable development challenges into new opportunities for energy efficiency and green building practices through innovative products, solutions, and partnerships.

Our unwavering focus is on enabling our cities and societies around the world to grow sustainably well into the future. Why? Because for us the fight against climate catastrophe is not merely about lowering CO2 emissions, it's about transformative change. We hope others in our industry will follow suit and encourage everyone to embrace the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 (UN SDG 11).

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