Efficient buildings: is there such a thing?

If you’ve been looking for a flat recently you most certainly received a sheet of paper by the landlord or estate agent showing how efficient is the building you are about to move into. But is that house really efficient? Let’s find out, as always, together.

When talking about buildings, the main concern that companies rating their efficiency have is about their energy consumption. If a building is well insulated and receives plenty of natural light, it will most likely get a B. If the building is not totally dependent on electricity would candidate for an A. If it has a solar roof connected to a heat pump or similar technologies that are able to generate or re-use the energy dispersed by the building then you’re in for an A+ or something like that.

The same concept is used by national governments when declaring and planning out how to reduce their emissions or become carbon-neutral.

Basically, what they look for is how to produce the energy needed via renewable sources. If most, if not all, the energy required is obtained without the burning of any fossil fuels, they will declare themselves carbon-neutral.

Are they really?

As always, whenever we talk about an environmental issue, we should be very careful in making assumptions or announcement with such a big mediatic impact. The reason is very simple: if the UK was to produce all the energy consumed by its population via renewable sources it wouldn’t be carbon neutral.

The concept I want you to focus on is the embedded emissions. Embedded emissions are the greenhouse gases produced when manufacturing, shipping and packing a certain good: vegetables, fruits, clothes, cars, laptops, people: everything you can think of has a carbon impact.

And so, when countries declare to be carbon-neutral they always ignore the embedded emissions of the imported goods. This will make nearly impossible for a certain country to be carbon-neutral, unless it stops importing anything from abroad.

On the other hand, environments with fewer relations with the outside have better chances of becoming neutral. For example, if a house is able to produce everything it consumes through the installation of a solar roof, we could say that it is carbon neutral.

Easy, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is still no. The food eaten by the households, the TV they just bought, all the furniture: everything that is part of the house “ecosystem” has a carbon footprint, and so it will make the carbon-neutral house not so neutral.

On the same line are building intended for business purpose. It is funny to see that corporate companies invest so much money trying to reduce the emissions of their building and then host large corporate events with endless food stands, most of which goes to waste: not only there are embedded emissions of the single piece of fruit to be taken into consideration, but all the methane that will be released during the decomposition accounts for carbon emissions of that particular company.

Example of embedded emissions never taken into consideration. In a corporate event, surplus food that goes to waste will turn into methane in the landfill or will be incinerated: both actions will have a footprint that won’t be considered when assessing the company’s carbon footprint.

I could be making hundreds of different examples of how governments and corporate companies sell to us the idea of carbon neutrality by simply showing how they deal with part of the problem.

The solution? I don’t have it, and I am not the one who is supposed to have it. It all comes back to the same concept: think about your habit, cut where you can, buy what you need.

Do you think your insulated – solar powered – house is carbon-neutral? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to stay Green!

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