Energy-efficiency initiatives in the built environment will need to play a key role in slowing climate change, a United Nations Environment Programme report has found.

According to UNEP’s fifth Emissions Gap report, the world is dangerously close to blowing its carbon budget and urgent policy action is required.

Detailing initiatives and policies to tackle climate change, the report found that energy efficiency in buildings – including HVAC, appliances and lighting – had high co-benefit ratios, medium barriers to implementation and the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions by at least two gigatonnes.

“The good news is that countries are already widely applying policies that are overcoming barriers, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable development… about half the countries in the world have national policies for promoting more efficient heating and/or cooling in buildings, and about half are working on raising the efficiency of appliances and lighting,” the report states.

“About 30 per cent of countries have programs for sustainable waste management and sustainable forestry.”

The report said countries that integrated climate policy into their core development strategy, had long term strategic visions and built wide-ranging political support had made rapid progress.

In a media conference launching the report in Washington, president of the World Resources Institute Andrew Steer said that “we have been falling off the least cost path” of emissions reduction every year that has been passing without firm and global commitments.

We don’t need fossil fuels to alleviate poverty

He directly refuted Australia’s argument at the recent G20 summit that fossil fuels were required to lift developing countries out of the low growth trap, instead saying the solution was to assist developing nations to “use resources more efficiently” and deliver predictability on policy, better technology and solving of the infrastructure gap.

“Over the next 15 years there will be US$19 trillion invested in renewable energy and US$13 trillion invested in energy efficiency,” Mr Steer said.

The combined impact of reduced demand for power and consequently less need for new power plants, better designed cities and increased use of renewable energy with its extremely low ongoing input costs would result in major savings for the global economy, he said.

“We can’t afford not to do it; the economic imperative is to act,” Mr Steer said.

Executive director of UNEP and UN-under-secretary-general Achim Steiner said the current debate around climate change and carbon emissions policies begged the question of whether “science polarises or science unifies our ability to act”.

The essence of the report he said was to assess “what the science tells us should be the limits on emissions, and how big is the gap [between actual and ideal], and how can we close that gap.”

In a media statement released ahead of the press conference, the UNEP set out the major costs identified if nations waited until 2020 to take action:

  • higher rates of global emission reductions in the medium-term
  • lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure
  • dependence on using all available mitigation technologies in the medium-term
  • greater costs of mitigation in the medium- and long-term, and greater risks of economic disruption
  • reliance on negative emissions
  • greater risks of failing to meet the 2°C target, which would lead to substantially higher adaptation challenges and costs

“Countries are giving increasing attention to where they realistically need to be by 2025, 2030 and beyond in order to limit a global temperature rise to below 2°C. This fifth Emissions Gap Report underlines that carbon neutrality and eventually net zero or what some term climate neutrality will be required so that what cumulative emissions are left are safely absorbed by the globe’s natural infrastructure such as forests and soils,” Mr Steiner said in the media statement.

“The [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals underscore the many synergies between development and climate change mitigation goals. Linking development policies with climate mitigation will help countries build the energy-efficient, low-carbon infrastructures of the future and achieve transformational change that echoes the true meaning of sustainable development.”

  • Read the report and supporting documents here.

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