COP must reverse growing pessimism about decarbonising the construction sector, argues new study

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Social media engagement with climate policy events is vital to reducing emissions from buildings and delivering environmental justice, suggests research led by the University of Cambridge.

Negativity on Twitter about decarbonizing the built environment has increased by about a third since 2014, according to a new analysis of more than 250,000 tweets featuring #emissions and #building between 2009 and 2021.

The pessimistic trend followed the launch of major reports on climate action. The study, published today in Nature science reportsreveals that expressions of “fear” in Twitter dialogues have increased by around 60% since the launch of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change in 2015.

The researchers, from Cambridge, Boston, Sussex and Aarhus Universities and Caltech, also found that ‘sadness’ increased by around 30% following the IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5C in November 2019; while the November 2020 debate over pressure from builders and utility companies to fail to comply with new building codes in the US triggered a spike in “anger”.

Mapping the tweets that caused spikes in emotional engagement revealed that public concerns triangulate around inaction towards emissions reductions, carbon tax equity, politicization of building codes (seen distinctly for states States) and concerns about environmental degradation. This demonstrates, the researchers argue, “a strong environmental justice discourse.”

The results appear on the heels of the COP27 construction sector events (10th—14th November), which sought to promote a just transition and improve the resilience of buildings with the slogan “Build4Tomorrow”.

Lead author Ramit Debnath, Cambridge Zero Fellow at the University of Cambridge and visiting faculty member in Computational Social Science at Caltech, says:

“Major climate policy events including the COP have highlighted how difficult it is to decarbonise the built environment and this has been reflected in the rise of negative sentiments on social media.

“But our research also offers hope: We have found that climate policy events can foster and encourage public engagement, mostly positive, and that this has the power to increase the building sector’s focus on environmental justice.

“To build tomorrow justly, global climate action must incorporate and empower diverse public voices. Political actions are no longer isolated events in this digital age and require two-way communication. Political events and social media have a crucial role to play in this.”

The study highlights that the construction sector is one of the most important and challenging to decarbonise. The IPCC suggests that limiting climate change to 1.5◦C requires rapid and far-reaching changes in energy consumption, building design, and wider city and infrastructure planning. The building and construction sector currently accounts for approximately 39% of global energy and process-related carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency estimates that to achieve a zero-carbon building stock by 2050, direct carbon emissions from buildings must decrease by 50% and indirect emissions from the building sector must also decrease by 60%. by 2030.

But decarbonising the building sector is a challenge because it involves a complex overlap of people, places and practices that creates an obstacle to designing the right policies to reduce emissions. The study argues that democratizing the decarbonization process “remains a critical challenge at local, national and regional scales”.

Debnath says, “Our findings shed light on potential pathways for a people-centric transition to a greener construction sector in a gridless future.”

Using advanced natural language processing and network theory, researchers have discovered a strong relationship between Twitter activity related to the construction sector and major policy events around climate change. They identify increased Twitter engagement around developments including: the Paris Agreement’s call on the building sector to reduce its emissions through energy efficiency and address the full lifecycle; COP-23 “Human Settlement Day” focusing on cities, affordable housing and climate action; the COP25 speech on green/climate finance for residential homes; and the COP26 ‘Day of Cities, Regions and the Built Environment’.

The researchers found that while negative sentiments have gained an increasing share since 2014, positive sentiments have continued to multiply as engagement on Twitter has exploded. Over the entire study period (2009-21), positive feelings fairly consistently held a larger share of the conversation than negative feelings.

The study highlights the fact that the main topics covered by tweets have changed significantly over time, with the emergence of new innovations, technologies and problems. Hashtags associated with COP26, for example, included #woodforgood and #masstimber, as well as #housingcrisis, #healthybuildings #scaleupnow and #climatejusticenow, all largely or entirely absent from Twitter conversations between 2009 and 2016.

The researchers found that talk of innovative emission reduction strategies that remain uncommon in the construction industry, including the use of alternative building materials such as cross-laminated timber; implement climate-sensitive building codes; and Tweets inspired by the circular economy expressing “anticipation”.

Debnath says, “COP26 was an extraordinary moment – ​​Twitter engagement surrounding the event connected public health, the circular economy, affordable housing and the decarbonisation of the built environment like never before “.

“We are seeing a paradigm shift in the discourse on building emissions towards broader social and environmental justice contexts. References to low-carbon alternatives to concrete, the housing crisis, scaling up and climate justice make all part of the growing social justice movement associated with healthy and affordable social housing narratives globally.”

The study finds that, considering the size of Twitter’s current user base (about 211 million users globally), the number of tweets about emissions in the building sector remains relatively low.

Debnath says, “It is imperative that policymakers raise the importance of these issues and develop communication strategies to highlight the importance of climate action in hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as the construction sector.”

The authors of the study intend to continue analyzing the interaction of social media with further climate policy events, starting with COP27.

Co-author Professor Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University, said: “Some people dismiss Twitter as a poor target for academic research given its ability to spread disinformation and fake news. But instead we see it as a lens into the inner workings of how millions of people think, and rethink, about energy and climate change.It offers an incredible opportunity to reveal people’s true intentions, their revealed preferences, in an unbiased way in a public forum.”

Co-author Prof. R. Michael Alvarez, professor of computational and political social sciences at Caltech, said: ‘This is an innovative and important study, which shows how an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars can use big data and learning automatic to provide policy guidance on how to decarbonise the building sector.Research such as this is critical right now, to inform debates at forums such as COP27, and to spur further academic work that can help advance our goal of democratizing action to the climate “.

The paper is co-authored by Dr. Ramit Debnath (Cambridge Zero and Churchill Colleges, Universities of Cambridge and Caltech), Prof. Ronita Bardhan (Selwyn College, Cambridge), Prof. Darshil U. Shah (St John’s College, Cambridge), Prof. Kamiar Mohaddes (King’s College, Cambridge), Prof. Michael H. Ramage (Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge), Prof. R. Michael Alvarez (Caltech) and Prof. Benjamin Sovacool (Boston University, Aarhus University and University of Sussex) .

More information:
Social media enables people-centred climate action in the hard-to-decarbonise construction sector, Scientific reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41589-022-23624-9

Provided by the University of Cambridge

Citation: COP must reverse growing pessimism about decarbonisation of construction sector, argues new study (2022, 17 Nov) retrieved 17 Nov 2022 from sector-decarbonization.html

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