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Climate Innovation can move the world toward net-zero while creating enormous business and economic value. This is according to BCG, and in a few industries, this is more salient than in the infrastructure sector. The built environment particularly contributes nearly 50% of annual global CO2 emissions, yet, besides oil and gas, cement and steel industries lag in championing green innovations, according to a McKinsey Sustainability report. However, new opportunities exist to turn this narrative around with the adoption of a few innovative practices that act to mitigate and adapt to the impending climate crisis.
Here are a few examples of innovations in the built environment that are leading the way in climate change adaptation and mitigation on the continent:
With concrete being the second most used resource after water, cement is understandably responsible for nearly 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Among the many solutions to curb this problem, Ash Resources, a subsidiary of Lafarge-Holcim in South Africa is promoting greener cement variants. By blending cement with fly ash, a by-product of coal combustion, they have reduced the energy required to produce cement whilst decreasing CO2 output in the process. The use of their products in major construction projects such as Soccer City Stadium and the Burj Khalifa is testament to their efficacy.
3-D printed houses
Another exciting development in the construction industry is 3D printed housing. This novel construction method has decidedly proven superior to traditional building practices along economic and environmental metrics. In 2021, a pioneer in the 3D construction space in Africa, 14 Trees, delivered affordable housing units in Kenya boasting over 70% less CO2 emissions than standard methods would have produced. 3D printing construction eliminates waste associated with building material and reduces the significant environmental impact of transportation into and out of construction sites.
Reducing energy use in buildings can go a long way in curtailing the use of fossil fuels and hence carbon dioxide emissions. The Ridge, located at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, pushes the boundaries of net-zero buildings on the continent. The developers, Arup and studioMAS, applied cutting-edge natural lighting, ventilation, and heating solutions that, together, reduce carbon emissions by up to 82% in the operation of the building. A thermally activated building structure was installed for year-round thermal comfort with notably superior energy efficiency to air conditioning.
In 2019, cyclone-induced flood damage created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. One of the hardest-hit cities, Beira had over 80% of its infrastructure reduced to rubble. While floods are not a new phenomenon in human history, their increased frequency and intensity call for intervention. The World Bank and partners funded a huge “green-grey infrastructure” undertaking in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai to improve flood resilience in the port city of Beira. Part of this effort went towards upgrading traditional flood-fighting drainage systems. More notable though were the ‘green’ interventions such as restoration of the Chiveve river capacity and expanding urban green spaces. Like the Chinese model of “sponge cities,” these interventions not only serve to limit surface-water flooding but also create more livable, sustainable cities.
In 2018, Cape Town came eerily close to a grim milestone known as “Day Zero,” a day when the city’s taps would be shut to all but the most essential facilities. As more persistent droughts strain water reservoirs in some parts of the world, the Cape Town scenario will become more commonplace. In response, the urban built environment is becoming more adept at conscious water use. While not a new concept, the widespread adoption of non-potable water is an effective way to limit water usage. Non-potable water is water that, although not safe to drink, is usable for many other purposes such as gardening and plumbing. Greywater, wastewater from activities such as showering, and stormwater are examples of non-potable water. A prime example of a water-scarce city taking this approach is Windhoek which has managed to keep the taps running against all odds.