Environmental damage caused by the construction and operation of buildings has hit a record high and now accounts for over a THIRD of all CO2 emissions, UN report reveals

  • Building sector is ‘moving away and not towards’ climate change goals, says UN 
  • CO2 emissions from operation of buildings reached highest-ever levels in 2019 
  • Governments must target reduced emissions from construction post-pandemic

The construction and operation of buildings accounted for more than a third of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year, a new UN report reveals. 

Emissions resulting from keeping global residential and non-residential buildings running, as well as the construction of new buildings, made up 38 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions, it says. 

Meanwhile, emissions solely from the operation of buildings hit their highest-ever level in 2019 – just under 10 gigatonnes, or 28 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. 

The report, from the UN’s Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC), says there’s an urgent need for CO2 emissions from the building sector to be curbed to keep in line with targets on climate change.   

Overall, in 2019, the buildings and construction sector ‘moved away and not towards’ the goal of the Paris Agreement, which is to keep the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C (3.6ºF), compared to pre-industrial levels.

The UN says governments globally should prioritise the construction of low-carbon buildings, once the sector restarts after the slowdown caused by the coronavirus.  

A new UN-backed report says emissions from the operation of buildings hit their highest-ever level in 2019, moving the sector further away from fulfilling its huge potential to slow climate change and contribute significantly to the goals of the Paris Agreement

Buildings-related CO2 emissions can either be operation-related or construction-related.

– Operation-related emissions are either direct (i.e. fuels burned in buildings) and indirect (i.e. emissions from electricity).

– Construction, meanwhile, relates to manufacturing of required materials and the actual construction of buildings.

In 2019

Construction and operation related CO2 emissions was 38% (approx 13.5 GtCO2) of total global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019.

Broken down:

– Emissions (direct and indirect) from the operation of buildings was 28% in 2019 (approximately 9.95 GtCO2)

– Emissions from construction of buildings: 10% in 2019 (a further 3.5 GtCO2). 

In 2018

Combined, construction and operation of buildings: 39% in 2018 (approx 13.2 GtCO2).

Broken down: 

– Emissions (direct and indirect) from operation of buildings: Also 28% in 2018 (approximately 9.7GtCO2).

– Emissions from from construction of buildings: 11% in 2018 (3.5 GtCO2). 

Source: UN 

‘Rising emissions in the buildings and construction sector emphasise the urgent need for a triple strategy to aggressively reduce energy demand in the built environment, decarbonise the power sector and implement materials strategies that reduce lifecycle carbon emissions,’ said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

‘Green recovery packages can provide the spark that will get us moving rapidly in the right direction. 

‘Moving the buildings and construction sector onto a low-carbon pathway will slow climate change and deliver strong economic recovery benefits, so it should be a clear priority for all governments.’

The UN has based its figures on the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Statistics and Balances database, which contains stats on energy balances of OECD and non-OECD countries. 

While global building energy consumption remained steady year-on-year, energy-related CO2 emissions from the operation of buildings alone in 2019 increased to 9.95 gigatonnes (9.95 billion tonnes) – 28 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions.   

The buildings sector emissions increase is due to a continued use of coal, oil and natural gas – all environmentally unfriendly ways of producing energy – for heating and cooking. 

With the inclusion of emissions from the buildings construction industry, the total global energy-related CO2 emissions of the industry registers at 38 per cent – down slightly from 39 per cent in 2018. 

The slightly lower proportion of buildings emissions in 2019 compared with 2018 was due to increases in transport and other industry emissions relative to buildings, however.

The GlobalABC has a tool called the Buildings Climate Tracker (BCT), which tracks the sector’s progress in decarbonisation worldwide.

BCT considers measures such as incremental energy efficiency investment in buildings and the share of renewable energy in global buildings.

Global share of buildings and construction emissions, 2019. CO2 emissions from keeping residential and non-residential buildings around the world running, as well as emissions during the construction of new buildings, made up 38 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions

But worryingly, the tool suggests the rate of annual improvement in decarbonisation is decreasing, having halved between 2016 and 2019.

Strategies to make buildings net-zero energy and zero-carbon must become the primary form of building construction across all economies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the report says. 

‘For building owners and businesses, this means using science-based targets to guide actions, engage with stakeholders across the building design, construction [and] operation,’ it reads. 

Building Climate Tracker (2015-2019). The UN tool tracks the sector’s progress in decarbonisation worldwide. It suggests the rate of annual improvement in decarbonisation is steadily decreasing, having halved between 2016 and 2019


Net zero refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

Net-zero organisations should be actively reducing their emissions aligned to a 1.5ᵒC science-based target in line with the Paris Agreement.

There will be some carbon emissions that cannot be eliminated with current technology, so to achieve net zero, it is essential that certified greenhouse gas removals are also in place.

The UK government says it is committed to ensuring emissions generated by the UK re offset by removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

There are two main ways this can be achieved – by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Source: Carbon Trust 

To get on track to net-zero carbon buildings by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that direct building CO2 emissions need to fall by 50 per cent by 2030.

Meanwhile, indirect building sector emissions – those from power generation for electricity and commercial heat to keep them warm once built – will need to fall by 60 per cent. 

Together, this equates to building sector emissions falling by around 6 per cent per year until 2030.

For comparison, the global energy sector CO2 emissions decreased by 7 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic.   

The report acknowledges that the global health crisis has come on top of a housing crisis – a lack of affordable housing for a growing population. 

In 2018, it was estimated by the United Nations Development Programme that 1.8 billion people live in inadequate housing including slums and informal or overcrowded settlements. 

This figure suggests adequate hygiene, and social distancing would have been challenging this year, in turn exacerbating the health crisis. 

‘As many people around the world are forced to spend an increasing amount of time indoors, well-ventilated, energy efficient buildings are critical for public health, air quality, affordable homes, and economic recovery,’ the report says.

At the same time, construction activities have dropped by 20 to 30 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019 as a result of the pandemic and around 10 per cent of overall jobs have been lost or are at risk across the building construction sector.

Emissions from the operation of buildings (not including emissions during construction), hit their highest-ever level in 2019 – just under 10 gigatonnes, or 28 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. This was due to a continued use of coal, oil and natural gas for heating and cooking 


Renewable sources:

Solar – light and heat from the sun. 

Wind – through wind turbines to turn electric generators. 

Hydro – captured from falling or fast-running water. 

Tidal – energy from the rise and fall of sea levels. 

Geothermal – energy generated and stored in the Earth.

Biomass – organic material burnt to release stored energy from the sun.

Renewables contrast with the more harmful fossil fuels:



Source:  EDF Energy 


Although the global pandemic brings many challenges, it also presents an opportunity ‘for a paradigm shift’, the report claims.      

It essentially gives the industry to start afresh, focusing on the construction of energy-efficient buildings and retrofitting old buildings to become greener. 

New tower blocks can be fitted with solar panels as a way to generate their own energy.

Plant-covered buildings, known as ‘vertical high risers’, like One Central Park in Sydney and Bosco Verticale in Milan, can also pull excess CO2 out of the air and convert it into oxygen. 

Government programmes for a greener building and construction sector can create jobs, boost economic activity and activate local value chains, the UN says.  

The International Energy Agency also estimates that up to 30 jobs in manufacturing and construction would be created for every million dollars invested in retrofits or efficiency measures in newly-built housing. 

‘Buildings are a strategic sector to simultaneously address various global challenges such as climate change, the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, improve living conditions and the resilience of our cities,’ said Sergio Israel Mendoza at Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT)

‘For Mexico, the implementation of mitigation measures that improve the thermal and energy performance of buildings is a key ingredient for sustainability.’ 

View of the ‘Bosco Verticale’ and ‘Unicredit Tower’ – skyscrapers in Porta Nuova, the business district of Milan, Italy. Plant-covered buildings help with carbon capture

In 2019, spending on energy-efficient buildings increased for the first time in three years, with building energy efficiency across global markets increasing to $152 billion in 2019, 3 per cent more than the previous year.

This is only a small proportion of the $5.8 trillion spent in total in the building and construction sector.

But there are ‘positive signs’ across the investment sector that building decarbonisation and energy efficiency are taking hold in investment strategies. 

Green buildings represent one of the biggest global investment opportunities of the next decade, estimated by the International Finance Corporation to be $24.7 trillion by 2030. 


The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change.

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

It seems the more ambitious goal of restricting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) may be more important than ever, according to previous research which claims 25 per cent of the world could see a significant increase in drier conditions.

In June 2017, President Trump announced his intention for the US, the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, to withdraw from the agreement.  

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has four main goals with regards to reducing emissions:

1)  A long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels

2) To aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change

3) Goverments agreed on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries

4) To undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science

Source: European Commission 

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