The greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption of the building and construction sector rebounded from the Covid-19 pandemic to hit an all-time high in 2021, despite the industry’s increasing energy efficiency and diminishing energy intensity levels, according to a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Globally, the sector accounted for more than 34% of energy demand and around 37% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2021, found the 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction.

Urban construction in Beijing, China. (Photo by AerialPerspective Images via Getty Images)

Operational energy-related CO2 emissions in the sector reached ten gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent – 5% higher than 2020 levels and up 2% from the pre-pandemic peak in 2019. Operational energy demand for heating, cooling, lighting and equipment in buildings increased in 2021 by around 4% on 2020 levels and 3% on 2019.

In better news, energy intensity slightly decreased, from 153 kilowatts per hour (kW/h) per square metre in 2015 to 152kW/h in 2021, and investments in building energy efficiency have gone up by unprecedented levels, rising by 16% in 2021 over 2020 levels to $237bn. Nonetheless, the overall emissions increase means that the gap between the sector’s climate performance and the 2050 decarbonisation pathway is widening. 

“Years of warnings about the impacts of climate change have become a reality,” Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, said in a statement. “If we do not rapidly cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, we will be in deeper trouble.

"The buildings sector represents 40% of Europe’s energy demand, 80% of it from fossil fuels. This makes the sector an area for immediate action, investment, and policies to promote short and long-term energy security.”

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