Kas Mohammed, VP Digital Energy at Schneider Electric says that in 2022 buildings must be the lever of innovation we use to create a better future for all.

We have just eight years to halt the effects of global warming. To have the best chance of limiting temperature rises to 1.5˚C, we must halve global emissions by 2030.

As we enter 2022, with time running out, what role will buildings play in the race to net zero? I have 5 predictions for buildings in the coming year:

1. Net zero strategies will (finally) follow the science

We cannot let the momentum generated by COP26 hit a roadblock in 2022. If we do, it won’t be for lack of strategies, or lack of tools or tactics. It will be for a lack of strategic impetus from leaders and their boards. In 2021 almost three quarters of UK and Ireland businesses had not yet calculated their entire carbon footprint. In the run up to COP26 underestimation of the scale of the challenge was the biggest barrier to achieving net-zero goals.

However, the signs are positive. Nine out of 10 UK and Ireland businesses surveyed in Schneider Electric’s recent research said that decarbonisation is a priority. Our next challenge is to make sure what we do actually works. Right now, only 64.6% of businesses across the UK and Ireland believe that their organisation’s carbon reduction targets are based on science. A much lower proportion have committed to a science-based target validated by the Science based Targets Initiative (SBTi).

2022 will be the year that science comes first. Carbon reduction tactics must be based on data and evidence. That means committing to measurement and committing to impact. Those who don’t will be held to account - if not by regulation than by increasingly concerned employees and customers demanding to be shown the reality of organisation's footprints. That starts with the biggest sources of emissions… including our buildings.

2. Digital retrofitting; back to the future technologies

More than 50% of global buildings were built before the 1980s, before codes for energy efficiency were even in place. We can’t undo the past mistakes of unsustainable building design, and it’s not a case of tearing down the old to replace with the new.

To achieve net-zero, nine in 10 buildings that exist today will need to be digitally retrofitted with smart, energy efficient technologies. Organisations with existing estates are already accelerating this retrofitting as a highly cost-effective measure that ensures better energy use.

Beyond that, many estate owners are using digital retrofitting technologies to ‘co-optimise’ building performance through smart building management systems that track the flow of people, optimising heating, cooling, or ventilation based on occupancy, ensuring comfort and safety. Smart buildings such as this offer real-time analytics to improve building sustainability, efficiency and resiliency, bettering the overall occupant experience.

Our post-pandemic, post-COP26 culture will not allow organisations to shirk building sustainability goals with excuses of ‘old-age’. Just like the new world of work that has embraced technology for efficiency and experience, buildings must also move with the times.

3. Putting the energy into reducing energy waste

With all we know about energy efficiency and the impact on the environment, it’s hard to believe that still, more than a third of energy consumption in buildings is wasted; one in five respondents in Schneider Electric’s recent research had only just started measuring energy consumption. Over the next 12 months we can expect to see a significant uplift in interest for onsite renewables such as solar and wind, with local microgrids providing flexible, optimised energy for use onsite, including for an upsurge in the need for electric vehicle charging.

Older buildings are, of course, a huge source of energy wastage and by the end of 2022 we also expect to see a mass conversion of any remaining fossil fuel-based heating to electric; electric heat pumps and heat pump water heaters can be up to five times more energy-efficient than their natural gas counterparts. While the UK’s Non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive closed to applicants in March 2021, following COP26 a new scheme, the Clean Heat Grant, is expected in 2022.

4. Material responsibility

A tenth of total building CO2 emissions are caused by the manufacturing of building materials such as steel, cement, and glass – and a tenth of this ends up going to waste.

When it comes to new buildings, amazing work is being achieved using revolutionary techniques, and some not-so-revolutionary materials, for example the 3D-printed clay structures championed at COP26.

Despite such headline projects, the sad fact is that too many construction firms are not invested in the long-term life of new buildings. The majority of carbon emissions are the result of a building’s construction, and together with emissions associated with a building’s demolition and disposal, the full lifecycle must be a key consideration.

In the next year I expect to see a shift in attitude towards constructors having lifetime responsibility, with ‘shared ownership’ of a building’s lifecycle, as part of a circular economy, moving up the sustainability agenda.

5. Putting buildings back at the heart of communities

The evidence shows that smart building technologies reduce energy wastage, while improving occupant experience. This is a double-win post-covid, as commercial buildings face the challenge of enticing people back from their remote worlds, which has also become synonymous with loneliness. This is a sign. Buildings are not just bricks and mortar (especially not so with today’s materials innovations) but are the beating hearts of a society that is craving meaningful contact and togetherness.

If we truly believe in the concept of ‘build back better’, both from the pandemic and from the threat of global warming, we must start with our communal spaces. Whether work, leisure, retail or health environments, 2022 is the year we recognise buildings as the lever of innovation to create a better future for all.