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From low carbon buildings to sustainable cities

A new PhD thesis was completed by Guillermo Penagos last July 6th, 2021, entitled "From Low Carbon Buildings to Sustainable Cities. Sustainability transitions in the built environment towards de UN Agenda", for the Sustainability PhD Program at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya.

The thesis addresses sustainability transitions in the built environment, from buildings to metropolitan scale, while ranging from low carbon development to multidimensional challenges currently faced by cities. Emphasis is made on the urban global south, with special focus on Latin America.

The new Dr. Guillermo Penagos said:

"The thesis seeks to contribute to the understanding of the formal, legal, institutional, physical, technological, economic and cultural aspects that need to be transformed to make a transition towards socially inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities"

The work is structured in four stages. First stage focuses on finding a low carbon path for the building sector, where a projection of policy scenarios reveals a low carbon path for this sector based on a lifecycle approach, consisting on reducing emissions from: 1) building materials and constructive systems; 2) energy use at operation stage for both new and existing buildings; and 3) residential waste management. Results show potential synergies between mitigation and adaptation goals, while showing that low carbon measures do not perform equal between industrialized economies in temperate regions and emerging economies in tropical climates, thereby highlighting the importance of science based and context specific policy making.

Second stage addresses current science, policy and practice relative to the sustainable BE, regarding thematic areas, goals and issues set by the New Urban Agenda (UN, 2017a). Findings show that mainstream scientific research, international certification systems and public policy instruments are mainly focused on resource efficiency and environmental quality. Hence, other environmental aspects, such as low carbon development, natural disaster risks reduction and biodiversity protection are conferred less importance. Likewise, social issues, such as inequality, informal settlements, housing, security, culture and heritage as well as economic aspects; such as local economic development and job provision, are all receiving marginal attention in the framework of the sustainable BE. However, findings also show that some policy instruments issued in Latin America address topics of the global agenda in a more comprehensive way as compared to some green building certification schemes that have been widely disseminated over the last decades, suggesting that the Region is building self-sufficiency to align global issues with national priorities.

Third stage analyses the potential role of the built environment in fulfilling goals, targets and issues of the UN Agenda. Links between subjects, goals, targets, thematic areas and issues of these four major multilateral agreements were analysed. Findings show that NUA underlines the critical role of spatial planning and design for realising inclusive cities; protecting cultural heritage; boosting local economy and creating jobs; while optimizing the use of natural resources; protecting ecosystems; decreasing carbon emissions, adapting to climate change and reducing natural risks. Hence, when bringing the SDGs to the urban sphere, extensive and strong interactions concerning infrastructure, housing, public space and informal settlements, become evident. Likewise, since urban resilience, climate action and disaster risk management are included in both NUA and SDGs, the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework may also be linked to the sustainable built environment. These results allow producing an integrative framework of the global agenda, useful for guiding directions towards urban sustainability transitions.

Fourth stage addresses urban transformative change by assembling perspectives on sustainability transitions on low carbon buildings and the sustainable built environment. Concerning low carbon buildings, findings show that regulatory rules of the socio-technical regime tend to favour the implementation of low carbon measures, whereas normative and cognitive aspects play a strong role as implementation barriers. In this sense, emerging national policies are advised to make use of a Multi-Level Perspective on transitions, aligning with international private agendas, in order to widen opportunity windows within the socio-technical regime, while adopting a bottom-up approach that uses existing innovation niches to actively promote low carbon innovations that are already available in the market. Although conventional instruments may still be useful, policies have to evolve on the use of novel instruments based on stakeholder networks, sequential experimentation and gradual up-scaling, in order to facilitate the progressive learning required by socio-technical systems to undergo long-term transitions.

Concerning sustainability transitions in the built environment, an exploratory method was used here to 1) link analytic perspectives on sustainability transitions, thereby allowing to produce an integrative conceptual model of the built environment as a socio-technical-institutional-economic-ecologic system; 2) linking transition management perspectives in the Urban Transformative Capacity framework (Wolfram, 2016) and 3) connecting both the conceptual model and the managing framework with the UN agenda, in order to provide elements for issuing and navigating transformative urban policies.

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Guillermo Penagos


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