How do we rethink the environmental impact of the built environment?
Climate change is a crisis of behavior — 72% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be traced to end-consumer behavior, with the richest 10% responsible for the majority of emissions. At Amasia, we believe that behavior change is the solution to climate change and that software is the perfect catalyst for this. Our investment pillars, or the 4Rs — Review, Renew, Rethink, and Rebuild — each tackle an area where large-scale behavior change is needed to avert the climate crisis. We are dedicating a blog post to each of the 4Rs to explain their significance and how they guide our investments.
In our last blog post, we dove into how to shift to circular and regenerative consumption patterns in R2. The next R we will explore is R3, or Rethink: How do we rethink the environmental impact of the built environment? In other words, how can we change how we use our buildings and move around to minimize emissions and resource use?
The built environment is highly GHG intensive
63% of our energy-related carbon emissions are housed in the built environment when considering emissions from buildings and transportation: buildings alone are responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions, with just concrete responsible for 8% of global carbon emissons. The emissions intensity of buildings is driven by short building lifespans; upfront costs of emissions-minimizing smart infrastructure and retrofitting; and misaligned incentives between developers, owners, and occupants for improving buildings’ environmental impact.
But the built environment doesn’t just encompass buildings — it also includes the transportation sector, which consists of our roads, bridges, and transportation systems. The global transportation sector is responsible for 24% of energy-related emissions, with road traffic being the biggest contributor.
Source: Our World in Data
In the US, car-centric infrastructure, a culture of car ownership, inefficient public transportation systems, and suburban sprawl further drive up the carbon footprint of road transportation. The majority of U.S. transportation emissions are attributed to the use of personal cars: 57% come from light-duty vehicles like sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks, while only 8% come from aircraft.
We need to rethink how we use our built environment
Even though the built environment is very emissions-intensive, several impactful ways exist to reduce this effect. Some of the most direct and immediate ways of doing this is by changing how and how much we rely on physical infrastructure. For instance, lengthening build lifespans from their current 50-year average to 80 years will reduce their environmental impact by 29%. Households that switch their 20-mile commute from a personal car to public transportation will cut their yearly GHG emissions by a third.
Apart from building less and building to optimize material usage, we must also use our buildings in the most efficient manner possible. On average, 30% of energy used in commercial buildings is wasted. Reducing avoidable emissions – such as those from wasted energy – is vital to curbing climate change. This includes implementing smart infrastructure throughout the built environment to maximize resource efficiency and reduce our carbon footprint. For example, using smart street lighting can reduce electricity use by up to 80%. This alone is equivalent to Germany cutting its nationwide electricity use by 80%.
Within the transportation sector, we must reduce demand for the most pollutive types of transport and choose sustainable mobility options when possible, including zero or low-emission vehicles, electrified public transport, and biking or walking. If 29-34% of all urban passengers opt for public transit, 9.42–15.42 gigatons of GHG from cars would be avoided by 2050.
These changes in behavior must take place on a large scale in order for the environmental impact to be significant. This is where R3 comes in: investing in companies that reframe our approach to building use and transportation can ripple changes in behavior throughout society. This can subsequently reduce GHG emissions, raw material use, and waste generated by the built environment.
How can companies change our relationship with the built environment?
Software companies hold massive potential in the built environment space because of their potential to reduce barriers to sustainable transportation and enable efficient use of buildings. Software solutions can also reduce our reliance on buildings altogether by providing remote alternatives to services we rely on.
For example, Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) software enables users to map, book, and pay for their entire journey using a user-friendly platform. MaaS integrates diverse transportation options like public transit, ride-sharing, and bike-sharing. This helps enhance mobility for users, reduce traffic congestion, and promote sustainable transportation options. Energy management software is also designed to monitor, analyze, and optimize energy consumption within buildings and facilities. The software provides tools and functionalities to track energy usage, identify inefficiencies, and implement energy-saving strategies to reduce emissions.
Other big players within R3 include remote services companies: they decouple the provision of essential services from the use of physical infrastructure by making said service available digitally. Consequently, remote services reduce the need for car travel and air travel and diminish reliance on buildings. Digitizing services like healthcare and education will ensure access to these vital services without physical infrastructure's associated emissions and resource intensity.
Companies providing much-needed remote services include Dialpad, which is leading the way in remote business solutions with its AI-enabled, all-in-one voice, video, and messaging platform. They enable businesses to communicate and collaborate effectively and efficiently while working remotely. Similarly, Focusmate matches remote working professionals in virtual co-working sessions to increase productivity and accountability.
While the emissions savings of remote service solutions may not seem significant, the converse may, in fact, be true: researchers estimate that digital solutions can bring about up to 20% emissions reductions in energy, transportation, and materials sectors. Reducing business aviation due to telepresence could also avoid up to 4.43 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions.
For our society to achieve net zero emissions, we cannot neglect the built environment’s impact on climate.
As our population increases in size, we must consider strategies to meet all individuals’ needs without a proportionate increase in physical infrastructure and the environmental impact that this will entail.
We must rethink how we plan our cities to make them more liveable and walkable, how to encourage sustainable decision-making regarding personal mobility, and how to reimagine the spaces we require to live, work, and play in.