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Retrofitting Buildings Is the Unsexy Climate Fix the World Needs

Insulation and HVAC don’t get a lot of hype, but making buildings energy-efficient on a large scale could slash carbon emissions.

Insulate Britain climate activists protest near Heathrow Airport on Sept. 27.

Insulate Britain climate activists protest near Heathrow Airport on Sept. 27.

Photographer: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures/Getty Images
Corrected

You may not have noticed unless you live in London, but protesters have been gluing their hands to the asphalt of the city’s thundering eight-lane M25 ring road, to the weirdly technocratic war cry of “Insulate Britain!” Frustrated commuters and the police officers who’ve had to peel these sticky activists from the road find them irritating. Yet they have a point. Among top producers of climate-harming emissions that world leaders plan to address at COP26 in Glasgow in November, buildings are the summit’s largely ignored Cinderella.

Making homes and offices leak less heat and persuading the construction industry to give up its addiction to demolition and to energy-intensive materials such as concrete, plastics, and steel have so far proved less than appealing to governments in search of solutions to the climate challenge. Retrofitting is costly and disruptive for the voters who happen to live, in the U.K. alone, in the 28 million homes that need an upgrade. It also demands the systemic transformation of a fragmented industry that’s riddled with vested interests, says Stephen Good, chief executive of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre along Glasgow’s southern underbelly.