Guiding the building sector towards absolute sustainability

Sustainable Building Sector

The building sector plays an important role in creating tomorrow's sustainable society.

The building sector across the globe has a huge potential for reducing its environmental impact. A PhD project aims to provide the sector with tools to help improve the use of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

August 6, 2020
  • SDG: #3, #4, #5
  • SECTORS: Building
  • COUNTRIES: Denmark
  • CONTRACT VALUE: USD 2.1 million (About EUR 1.8 million)
  • DURATION: October 2015–July 2018

The building sector accounts for no less than 39 % of global energy-related CO2 emissions, as shown by a UN environment report from 2018. This includes everything from producing building materials and construction to the energy consumption of the building through its lifespan and finally demolition.

Therefore, there is a huge potential for improvement across the lifecycle of building projects.

However, the sector struggles to measure sustainability in a way that guides decisions and allows for meaningful action.

Civil engineer and PhD student, Mia Heide, is in collaboration with NIRAS and Technical University of Denmark on a mission to change that.

The goal is to develop an operational method for assessing sustainability of different industries in relation to both the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and absolute sustainability targets, and to identify beacons (3-5 SDGs) for the Danish building sector.

Mia Heide Cropped
Mia Heide

Absolute sustainability

Absolute sustainability determines the level of sustainability of a product by relating the environmental footprint of the product to the carrying capacity of the Earth.

This effectively means that each product gets a certain share of the total “environmental budget”, which the Earth can sustain.

The “environmental budget” is determined by the planetary boundaries, which if exceeded can lead to huge and irreversible environmental changes.

Relative sustainability on the other hand, compares two similar products to each other and indicates, which of them is the better, but it does not say whether any of the products are sufficient.

For example, a relative reduction of CO2 emissions in production by 10% is a clear improvement, but it still might be an unsustainable solution.

Absolute Sustainability (1)

The main research activities of the Ph.D. project include developing methods for allocating a safe operating space for a certain project, and incorporating absolute sustainable thresholds defined by the planetary boundaries into the SDGs.

Sustainability across all life cycle stages

Looking at the entire life cycle of buildings is essential to reduce the environmental impact of the building sector.

This includes all processes in the different life cycle stages; extraction of raw materials, production, construction, operation/use, and the end of life of the building.

Building Life Cycle (1)
The life cycle of a building.

Goal: a sustainability tool for the building sector

While the fundamental principles are generic, the project will use the Danish building sector as a case for developing, testing and demonstrating the SDG assessment method, which will be the first of its kind.

The intended outcome of the project is to provide the stakeholders involved in building projects with a tool to quantify and document sustainability in an absolute context and in relation to the SDGs across the life cycle of a building.

This will enable them to apply quantitative "SDG-thinking" as part of their strategic planning to support a transition towards meeting the SDGs and avoid exceeding the SOS of the Earth.

Further, it will support meeting political climate and environmental targets (e.g. the Danish government's goal of a 70% CO2 reduction by 2030).

Planetary boundaries and safe operating space

Planetary boundaries is a concept proposed in 2009 by a group of environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström. The group identified nine earth-systems and set thresholds for each of them. If the threshold value is exceeded – for example if there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere – we enter into a danger zone where the consequences are unknown, but potentially catastrophic.

Planetary Boundaries
Illustration: Felix Mueller, License: CC BY-SA 4.0

As opposed to the danger zone, the safe operating space is the green circle in the center where we are still within the limits of the planetary boundaries.

Get in touch

Mia Heide

Mia Heide

PhD Student

Allerød, Denmark

+45 4299 9261

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