Forum Institutional

Existing building tech from Norway to NYC is slashing emissions to tackle climate change. Here’s how

New York's Empire State Building, one of many old buildings being retro-fitted for greater energy efficiency.

New York's Empire State Building, one of many old buildings being retro-fitted for greater energy efficiency. Image: Reuters/Gary Hershorn

George Oliver
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Johnson Controls
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Engineering and Construction

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Buildings are an overlooked part of climate mitigation and adaptation.
  • The means to configure new and ageing buildings to meet low-carbon and net-zero standards already exist.
  • Optimizing for energy efficiency not only benefits the climate, it also improves occupants' experience.

Extreme weather events. Ongoing conflict. The growing energy crisis. These factors – many of which are made worse by climate change – also challenge our ability to build a climate-resilient world. However, on the heels of a thought-provoking COP27 and on the brink of Davos, opportunity is at its greatest to make a significant and lasting impact.

As the leader of a building technology company, I have a unique responsibility to address climate change, given that almost 40% of global CO2 emissions come from buildings. However, buildings have always been the piece of the infrastructure equation that was an afterthought. In the past, when people talked about climate-friendly technology, things like solar arrays, wind farms or electric vehicles came to mind. They are all part of the solution, but they are not the sole answer.

There is no decarbonizing the world without decarbonizing buildings. The good news is that we also know the formula to get the job done: focusing on energy efficiency, electrification and digitization. Technology like high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, occupancy sensors and digital platforms are the real game-changers in the building space. Along with real-time data insights and inter-platform connectivity, they enable us to cut energy bills, slash emissions and make buildings come alive as a strategic, climate-friendly assets.

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To reconfigure buildings to meet tomorrow’s low-carbon (and net zero) standards, we need to digitize and transform them. By connecting an array of different systems and devices – whether that means HVAC units, energy meters, security systems and more – into a single, intelligent network, building owners can gain real-time insight and control of how their buildings consume and expend energy.

There is no decarbonizing the world without decarbonizing buildings.

George Oliver, chairman and CEO of Johnson Controls, Johnson Controls

Look at Powerhouse Brattørkaia, the largest energy-positive building in Norway. It produces more energy than it consumes over its lifespan – but how is this possible? Through state-of-the-art building management solutions, low energy devices like LED lighting and high-efficiency HVAC systems, together with advanced, energy-efficient heat pumps and electric car chargers. The energy system harvests twice the building’s annual consumption and, with the help of solar panels on the skin of the edifice, draws heating and cooling energy from the ocean while sharing it with the building and other surrounding structures.

Powerhouse Brattørkaia, which produces more energy than it consumes
Powerhouse Brattørkaia, which produces more energy than it consumes Image: Johnson Controls

All systems are tracked on a digital dashboard that details occupancy, comfort and sustainability KPIs in given building zones. On average, the Powerhouse Brattørkaia supplies renewable energy to itself, neighbouring buildings, electric buses, cars and boats through a local microgrid. This is a building of the future, but it exists right now.

The answer isn’t always new construction either. Organizations can turn ageing buildings into “smart” buildings and have similar outcomes, including a lower carbon footprint, as well as a lower total cost of operations. Armed with energy prediction models that estimate moment-by-moment consumption and demand, and that take into consideration wide-ranging variables such as current outdoor conditions, historical weather patterns and more, building owners now have the power to slash their energy spend and significantly cut down on maintenance costs. These reclaimed funds can be redirected back into decarbonization initiatives or other critical areas of operations.


Just look at the Empire State Building. Opened in 1931, it served as a beacon of hope for a city reeling from the Great Depression. And now, the building is serving as a guiding star for New York in a different way: sustainability. As profiled by The Washington Post, the trust that owns the Empire State Building has been working to remake the monument as a model of sustainability. The elevators generate energy as they move, the windowpanes were refurbished to make them ultra-insulated. All together, the improvements have cut carbon emissions from operations at the Empire State Building about 40% in the past 10 years, while delivering $40 million in energy savings; owners aim to cut an additional 40% in the decade to come.

The benefits of digitalization go well beyond building owners alone. By connecting a building’s hardware with newer software, they can improve the lives and well-being of occupants, increasing their productivity and satisfaction, while also reimagining the broader future of their city skylines. For instance, integrating HVAC systems with occupancy sensors delivers multiple positive outcomes: reduced energy waste, reduced costs and improved occupant comfort through temperature automation. It’s a win-win for climate and for occupant experience.

Fiserv Forum, which has benefitted from game-changing energy efficiency technology.
Fiserv Forum, which has benefitted from game-changing energy efficiency technology. Image: Johnson Controls

Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, home of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, is a state-of-the-art venue that has fans lining up to attend sporting events, concerts and more. We implemented a variety of building technology solutions throughout the facility to enhance the fan experience, improve the building’s performance, reduce energy usage and reduce the arena’s environmental footprint. The technology has been a game-changer – for the fans’ experience and for smart building management. The venue is only one of four gold-certified NBA arenas in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programme.


How can digital technologies help deliver the climate goals?

For businesses and their workforces to stay relevant, competitive and sustainable in the face of rising global temperatures, they need to upgrade their buildings for greater climate resiliency. Leaders and organizations are reflecting on their bigger purpose and mission, and must recognize the impact that climate change will have on their workforces, businesses and cityscapes alike – and make the necessary adjustments today. By doing so, they will ensure their enduring success for generations to come.

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalNature and BiodiversityEnergy Transition
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