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How the COVID-19 crisis could influence energy demand in the building sector over the coming years

Susanne Dyrbøl
Susanne Dyrbøl
20 January 2021

While the COVID-19 crisis brought many hardships, recovering from the pandemic also brings new opportunities for sustainable recovery and reducing emissions.

Energy Efficiency

When the COVID-19 crisis hit in 2020, few of us could predict the extent of the havoc it would cause over the following year. With the exception of a few centenarians that survived the 1918 flu, most governments, health organisations, businesses and families had no way of knowing just how devastating the effects would be.

Now, one year into the pandemic, we have a much clearer picture of both the societal and economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis. In the ensuing uncertainty, the only way to protect populations was to issue stay-at-home orders, and wherever possible, ask employees to do their work from the safety of their homes. Recommendations that helped create a firebreak and slow the spread of the virus changed our energy consumption patterns, and altered the CO2 emission drivers from global commercial buildings to residencial buildings.

These changes modified the landscape of the energy and emission mitigation efforts by governments around the world.

How COVID-19 changed living conditions and energy consumption patterns

COVID-19 challenges aside, experiencing the pandemic  has taught us a lot about what is possible when the global community works together. Private pharmaceutical companies collaborated with regulatory agencies to develop vaccines in record time. For most businesses, it quickly became clear that almost one in five jobs can be effectly looked after from the home office. Without doubt, the post-pandemic world will look radically different from the one we left behind in early 2020.

Working from home – which has now become commonly known as WFH – will likely continue to be commonplace even after the pandemic is under control. Analysts expect that WFH could lead to a small net increase in residential energy demand and the related carbon emissions from the residential building sectors due to these behavioural changes. This also means that the savings achieved from commercial buildings could balance out. When working from home, workers use more energy, and in some cases, the flexibility offered by working from home means that they move to larger homes in smaller towns outside of the city. This increases their commutes when they need to visit the office for work.  

On average, a day of working from home can increase the daily household energy consumption by between 7 - 23 percent, depending on the region and the size of the home. In most parts of the world, the extra demand in winter is larger than in summer due to space heating. Efficiency of IT equipment and devices will also have an impact, as well as seasonal heating or cooling needs.

In major economies, commutes were reduced by 60 percent in April, while the period between June and September saw a decrease of 20 - 30 percent. These adaptions created significant and complex changes in energy demand.

Changes to expect after the COVID-19 crises

International Energy Association (IEA) also expect that a lasting health crisis could continue to limit commercial building use. When more people return to work during and after the pandemic, there will be demand for higher ventilation rates in commercial buildings for health reasons. Elevated concerns about health in general will likely create new spikes in energy consumption. Within these challenging times, opportunities exist for governments and private businesses to focus on a recovery that increases sustainability, improves public health, and addresses concerns about indoor air quality while providing more affordable housing.

Slowing progress in the decarbonisation of the building sector

The recent fifth edition of the Global Alliance for Building and Construction’s (GlobalABC) global status report (GSR) attempts to quantify the latest developments and give us some guidance for the future.

GlobalABC has introduced a new  building’s climate tracker (BCT) to measure increases in energy efficiency investments. The indicators used to determine the progress of decarbonisation in the building sector are:

  • Incremental investments that improve energy efficiency in buildings globally
  • The number of countries with building energy codes
  • Cumulative growth of green building certifications
  • Nationally determined contributions with building sector actions by number of countries
  • Share of renewable energy sources in final energy used in the world’s buildings
  • CO2 emissions attributed to buildings and the energy unit intensity required

Losing momentum in decarbonisation efforts from the building and construction sectors was worrying even before the pandemic struck. Emissions from building operations peaked in 2019, and although energy efficiency investments are rising again, it still lags behind construction investments. Meanwhile, according to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), green buildings represent one of the biggest investment opportunities over the coming decade – estimated to reach about $24.7 trillion in 2030.

Evidence suggests that green buildings provide greater value, create lower-risk assets and save money on operational costs. Considering the economic, regulatory and resource challenges of the future, green buildings reduce the risks associated with transitioning to a lower-carbon economy.

To aid all stakeholders in achieving both their economic recovery plans and meet the United Nation’s sustainable development goals, the IEA recently published their three-pronged approach for sustainable recovery.

Three-pronged approach to net-zero carbon buildings

The decisions we make now will have lasting impacts on society and the environment in the future. Governments have a unique opportunity to transform their economies to low-carbon societies , adding sustainable jobs and building resilience into their economic models.

The IEA’s sustainable recovery plan recommends taking action on the following fronts:

  • Aggressively driving down energy demand in the built environment
  • Working to decarbonise the power sectors that supply the built environment
  • Implementing new material strategies that reduce lifetime carbon emissions in the building sector

According to the IEA, the goal for the building sector is to cut direct emissions in the building sector by 50 percent and indirect emissions by 60 percent by 2030. This is the only way to achieve net-zero carbon from our building stock by 2050. Using the three approaches above can help city and national governments bring their recovery policies in line with future sustainability, and once again put emissions from the building sector into structural decline.

Successful economic recovery using deep energy renovations

Over the next three years, the IEA sees an ideal environment where governments can help local communities and businesses transition to a low-carbon economy, leading to a sustainable recovery. The detailed plan provided by the IEA provides a perfect case for generating future-proof jobs, stimulating long-term growth and achieving the sustainable development goals required for creating resilient communities.

The analysis by the IEA shows that retrofitting buildings and adopting other energy-saving measures are the easiest ways to stimulate growth over the short term. Using recovery funds and strict energy performance standards to upgrade our building stocks with deep energy renovations over the next three years is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We can improve the living conditions for billions of people and future-proof our cities during the global economic recovery.

ROCKWOOL Group is a world leader in developing innovative technologies that increase sustainability and improve energy efficiency. Get in touch to find out more about what we do.

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