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Climate change – can we rise to the challenge?

Two degrees doesn’t sound like a lot. Two is a fairly small number, after all. But how will a rise of two degrees Celsius in global temperatures change our lives and the world? In this case, less is actually more, as Dr Anna Braune, Head of Research & Trends at the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), points out in her commentary on the Paris climate accord signed today in New York.

22 April 2016 is a day that will go down in history. Today in New York, more than 170 nations signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. Its aim is to limit global warming to less than two degrees over pre-industrial levels. This is good and important news! “If possible,” says the agreement, “to 1.5 degrees”. For decades, the global effects of climate change, which is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels, have been described by most scientists as a major threat and this impact is finally being acknowledged by governments and society as a whole.

The climate agreement is the outcome of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris

The climate agreement is the outcome of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris

The polar bear has become a common symbol of climate change, standing alone on an ice floe drifting out to sea. For many, this is enough reason to do more for climate protection. And the catastrophic scenarios painted by international research groups – droughts in many regions, flooding of entire Pacific nations, the erosion of Alpine glaciers – are also powerful arguments in favour of cutting carbon emissions.

Germany seems to be doing a lot for climate protection, with initiatives to switch to renewables, a variety of programmes aimed at cutting carbon emissions and widespread success in reaching the greenhouse gas targets we have set ourselves. But what would two degrees in higher temperatures actually mean for us here in Germany?

The answer is clear: a temperature rise of two degrees would change everyday life, even if the impact here would be less than in other parts of the world. Climate researchers believe that if temperatures do indeed go up by two degrees, the summer in Germany would last another month, autumn would arrive almost three weeks later and there would be an increasing risk of heatwaves similar to those experienced in recent years. According to a study conducted by German insurers, compared to today, the number of hailstorms would rise by around 25 per cent by 2040 – with all the associated financial impacts.

But are we even certain that we can master the challenge of climate change? Do we have the necessary means to adapt to climate change on time? The systems that make up and support our society today – not only cities, buildings and infrastructure networks, but also laws, regulations and habits – all have one thing in common: nothing’s moving forward. So it’s not surprising to read that at present, only around 15 per cent of German firms feel climate change has any direct impact on them. Looking ahead to 2030, however, surveys do show this number rising to 30 per cent. Looking at the companies whose employees mainly work in offices, we know that we’ll have more long, hot summers in the future. We also know that when temperatures rise above 26 degrees Celsius, productivity falls by an average of 3 to 12 per cent. According to a study by the WWF, by 2040 this will lower the gross national product by between 2.5 and 10 billion euros. Per year!

Cities will play a major role in all this. Forecasts show that by 2040, some 80 per cent of the German population will live in cities. A long summer heatwave often triggers health problems, especially among people with respiratory problems. Poor air quality, for example as the result of particulate pollution or high ozone levels, increases the probability of drops in productivity, work absenteeism, or worse.

Panic-mongering or reality?

The scenarios outlined here might take a different course, but their effects really will be felt in the not-so-distant future. And that means that even if we do manage to limit global warming to two degrees, climate change will still affect society, the environment and the economy. So it’s appropriate and it’s important to cut greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible – and not be scared to pursue radical ideas. If we don’t change our behaviour, we definitely won’t succeed.

Personally, I believe that as a participant in society with more than 1200 member organisations working for more sustainability, the DGNB has the necessary expertise and opportunities to play an important role, inspire a change in mind-set and fight climate change in Germany. As one of the main producers of carbon emissions, the construction and property industry has a duty and responsibility to act. This is the place where a spirit of “We can” could take root. But for it to flourish, dedication and solidarity will be essential.

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Dr. Anna Braune

As environmental engineer, Dr. Anna Braune has a deep understanding of both, environmental effects and issues and technical expertise on processing, using and disposal of natural and industrial goods. With a focus on the built environment, she gained vast experiences by assessing technologies, building elements, entire buildings and sites using environmental Life Cycle Assessment methodologies, substance assessments, and others. Being very business-oriented, she always keeps economic constraints and opportunities in mind when proposing environmental preferable solutions. From July 2007 until October 2008 she was the Initiator and Founding CEO of the German Sustainable Building Council. From November 2008 until June 2015 she was at PE INTERNATIONAL AG as responsible Project Manager and as Principal Consultant. In September 2015 she joined the DGNB again and is now Head of Research and Trends at the DGNB.

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