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URBANET: What We Build Today Will Form the Africa and Africans of Tomorrow

Green buildings are a crucial part of fighting climate change. Elizabeth Wangeci Chege from the Kenya Green Building Society explores which measures help to achieve sustainable building and construction in Kenya.

On average, it has only been three generations that have lived in so-called urban centres in Kenya. I continually question whether they befit our inherent human behaviour and indigenous culture. Because what we build today will shape tomorrow’s Africans, or – as Winston Churchill said – “We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us”.

When I was practising green building design and co-creating Kenya Green Building Society ten years ago, it was mainly deemed unnecessary for this part of the world. At the time, climate change was considered a developed world problem that was caused by others and would be resolved by the same perpetrators. Ten years later, Kenya has among others an updated Nationally Determined Contribution 2020 that includes green buildings as part of the prioritised adaptation programmes. In addition, Kenya Green Building Society grew from a prospective member of the World Green Building Council to emerging member and now established member.

However, most practitioners in the industry, most policymakers, and most people in the financial sector still don’t recognise the link between climate action, health and wellbeing, and circular economy through green buildings or the built environment. For example, mortgages for developments in Kenya are still approximately fourteen per cent, regardless of the building performance. Therefore, education and awareness efforts are still ongoing, targeting all ages from seasoned professionals to children.

The initial approach was to demystify green buildings. An internationally ratified green building rating system, the Green Star Africa-Kenya, helped to define areas of focus for advocacy and education. These are management, indoor environment quality, energy, water, materials, transport, land use and biodiversity, emissions, socio-economic and innovation. On a micro-level, there are as many government ministries as there are green building categories to be improved. Therefore, a prioritised effort for maximum impact is necessary.

Adapting Urban Plans

One impactful action is to re-plan national and local urban plans. This should be based on population growth, climate and science-based climate targets for limiting the worst impacts of climate change. Spatial planning of local urban centres should consider vulnerable communities and involve the community in the process. Integration of low-carbon passive design and response to the local climate in urban planning could abate locking carbon in rapidly expanding towns and cities. For example, Konza Technopolis in Machakos County of Kenya is earmarked to be the Africa’s smartest city and requires all developments to be certified to green building standards. This sustainable and climate-resilient approach of urban re-planning should be applied to countries as well as to existing regional communities, for example the East African Community. For this action to be realised, capacity development is a crucial instrument.

Using Low-Emission Construction Materials

Another suitable action to reduce carbon emissions in buildings, especially in Kenya, corresponds to construction materials. With an electricity grid that is over 90 per cent from renewable energy net-zero operational energy in buildings is achievable. However, whole-life net-zero carbon emissions in buildings remain nascent.

According to the current mindset, which goes back to colonisation, a “modern house” is made from stone. At the same time, the use of extensive cement and the advent adoption of steel hinders innovation around the use of engineered timber.

The topic of trees is highly emotive, spiritual, and cultural in Kenya. Already in 1978, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Wangari Mathai was advocating for planting more trees and saving forests, especially urban forests. 42 years later, Kenya is amidst a national tree planting ambition to attain a minimum of ten per cent forest cover by 2022. The current building code dated 1968 (under revision) needs to recommend adoption of cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other low-carbon construction materials.

For every 1,000 square metres built from CLT instead of steel or concrete, up to 350 tonnes of CO2 is saved or stored; and the building stock in Kenya is expected to grow by 10 million square metres from 2018 to 2025. Consequently, 3.5 gigatonnes of CO2 would be abated with immediate disruptive adoption of CLT. The use of CLT and its adoption into building codes will boost the economic demand in CLT, thus planting trees, certifying forests, creating local industries and green jobs while reducing carbon emissions.

Linking Circular Economy to Other Actions of Change Construction materials actions of change are incomplete without a circular economy as a linked action. The World Green Building Council strategy 2020-2022 includes a circular economy as one of the three impact areas along with climate action and health and wellbeing.

The waste-to-energy circle is one area where municipalities can implement such action. For example, there is a dumpsite called Dandora in Nairobi City, which my lifelong fascination for the cycle of materials and waste led me to discover. It has since tripled in size, holding more than 1.8 million tonnes of solid waste against a capacity of 500,000 tonnes. Over 2,500 tonnes of waste are deposited at the site daily. Acknowledging its potential, the Ministry of Energy announced in January 2021 that a waste-to-energy plant is due to be developed. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry drafted the National Sustainable Waste Management Bill which is expected to be passed into law in 2021. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Regulations are undergoing a second review before being signed into law this year, too.

We are steering towards a formidable climate action when a circular economy in the built environment is combined with local manufacturing and responsible consumption, and thereby job creation for the youth.

Immersion of the Financial Sector in Climate Proactivity

I’d like to conclude with the most important action that enables all the above: the immersion of the financial sector in climate proactivity. Are the current green building standards sufficient to meet the net-zero carbon targets of 2050 – or will investors and developers be saddled with a portfolio of underperforming, stranded assets? The financial sector must adopt de-risking tools with their underwriters that include inherent science-based targets for climate action to be sustained.

With people at the core of the recommended actions, indigenous culture, such as the tradition of urban forests, and changes in human behaviour will probably play a critical role in successful climate action in the built environment of rural and urban Africa.

Republished from Urbanet - Elisabeth Wangeci Chege


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