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Finding a path to carbon net zero, with Catriona Brady from WorldGBC

As part of our recent report, 2020: Our Air in Review, we spoke to Catriona Brady, Director of Strategy and Development at the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) to learn more about their work.

The WorldGBC catalyses the uptake of sustainable buildings for everyone, everywhere. They work with businesses, organisations and governments to drive the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Through a systems change approach, their network aims to lead the industry towards a net zero carbon, healthy, equitable and resilient built environment. 

You recently launched your Health & Wellbeing Framework. What is the purpose of this framework, and how will it redefine the scope of health and wellbeing?

We wanted to release expert guidance that challenges the market and changes the often misinformed perceptions of what a healthy building is. The Framework is about taking a much broader and less direct approach to the health and wellbeing of people. This involves looking at the impact that buildings have on people as individuals; not just in the operational phase, but across the entire building life cycle. This includes the human rights of those working in the material extraction, anyone in the supply chain, construction workers, and those who may be impacted by the emissions from the building once it is in operation. The Framework is intentionally very ambitious but also flexible, and people around the world will undoubtedly use it in very different ways. Over the next few years, we will be continuing to roll it out and provide more resources to support people in adopting this wider consideration of health and wellbeing.

What policy changes do you think need to be brought in to enact real change when it comes to making our buildings greener?

To put this into context, only 62 countries worldwide actually have energy codes that relate to buildings, while only around half the countries that committed to the Paris Agreement have made commitments to improving energy efficiency in buildings. For me, the dream policy changes would be related to that. Every country would have mandatory commitments around improving energy efficiency, moving towards electrification, phasing out of fossil fuels and bringing in total adoption of renewable energy. There is a huge amount of work going on within our network when it comes to advancing this policy change, particularly under our Advancing Net Zero global project. We also strongly believe that in order to bring in regulatory change and drive a mass movement, we need organisations and businesses to be taking the lead themselves. Policies aren’t going to be brought in if it’s going to destroy businesses or create too many barriers, so we need business to show that this can be done. Once the market starts to shift, policy will be incentivised to catch up.

How can we find a balance and create buildings that are healthier for people, and better for the environment?

The number one thing we need to not do as a sector is to pretend this is too easy. There are definitely co-beneficial synergies where health and sustainability go hand in hand. There are also many new technologies that can help us to address this challenge. However, there is not a one-size fits all answer, and there are undoubtedly some areas where there are tensions. This is particularly relevant as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, and see conflicting priorities around air filtration, ventilation and indoor air quality, versus operational energy use and working towards our net zero goals. We are encouraging people to take a bespoke approach, inspired by best practice and case studies, and to find adaptable and creative solutions to achieve that balance. And to align with WorldGBC’s strategy, our work always puts into practice our three key impact areas: health, climate and resource use.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly made us all more aware about the importance of healthy indoor spaces. What changes have you seen take place? Do you think it will lead to long-term change in the built environment?

There is so much more awareness, interest and investment in good indoor air quality. Last year, we held a webinar series about air quality. It was relatively technical and we didn’t think it would be a mass market education opportunity. However, we were completely taken aback by how many people joined it live and have watched it since. I think it’s undoubtedly an issue that isn’t going to go away. Generally, as a culture, we are moving towards more of an awareness of cleanliness, hygiene, and personal space. Interest in indoor air quality has spiked tremendously, and hopefully awareness of outdoor air quality and the emissions from our sector that contribute to that will come along with it.

Reaching net zero by 2050 is undoubtedly a big challenge. How can we prepare for this challenge now? Are you seeing more businesses and organisations commit to decarbonising the built environment?

Our Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment has been signed by 94 businesses, 28 cities, and 6 states and regions, and we hope that this will continue to grow in the coming years. We are continuing to see the trajectory of major organisations signing up to this commitment, or wanting information about how to get started. When it comes to reaching net zero, we believe the key principles are awareness, measurement, disclosure and reporting. Whether you are an individual or a large corporation, we can all use these principles to make an action plan of what we can do better and make a shift towards more sustainable choices. For individuals, it might be as simple as installing a smart meter or using a clean energy provider. It is the exact same process if you are a business, but just on a much larger scale with more ambitious targets. It is certainly a big challenge, but it’s important to remember that we all have a crucial role to play in reducing our carbon footprint.

Download 2020: Our Air in Review, to read more interviews and discover findings from our latest research.