Transitioning towards a sustainable building sector in Austria: Institutional barriers for a low carbon procurement of public buildings

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The building sector plays a central role in achieving Austria’s climate and energy policy goals. About 27% of Austria’s final energy consumption is used to provide hot water, space heating and cooling in buildings (Schnitzer et al., 2014). A large part of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is caused by the construction and operation of buildings. According to Abergel et al. (2018), the building sector is responsible for 39% of global emissions. To achieve its climate targets, Austria must decarbonise the building sector and avoid lock-in effects. Buildings built in the next few years will still be part of the building stock in 2050 and contribute to the building sector’s emissions.
Public procurement (PP) can play a key role in accelerating the decarbonizing of the building sector. Currently, public buildings account for 6% of the consumption-based GHG emissions of Austria’s total building stock (Nabernegg et al. 2020). Despite this relatively small share, the public building sector can act as an important ‘niche space’ (Smith and Raven, 2012) that supports the development and diffusion of low-carbon building solutions. Moreover, public procurement can serve as a role model in implementing these solutions (Sönnichsen et al. 2020; Correia et al. 2013). So far, however, the public building sector does not live up to these roles. Even though the current procurement law offers a range of possibilities to consider climate-related aspects (BVergG 2018), current climate action in the procurement of public buildings rarely goes beyond what is required by the building law.
In transition research, it is widely acknowledged that established organisational practices are typically rigid and thus difficult to change (Köhler et al. 2018; Geels, 2014). Following organisational studies, transition scholars trace this rigidity back to institutions, i.e., intersubjectively shared social structures that stabilize and give meaning to social life and consist of regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements (Scott, 2014; Geels, 2020). Against this background, this study focuses on the institutional structures that are associated with low carbon procurement of public buildings in Austria to identify existing barriers for considering climate change more strongly in the procurement process. Based on semi-structured interviews with experts and practitioners, a workshop as well as secondary research, we analysed the current legal framework, mapped the organizational process of the public procurement of buildings, and identified the social perceptions that underlie this process.
Our analysis reveals 7 key barriers for low-carbon procurement of public buildings: (i) a lack of awareness of key stakeholders about embodied emissions, (ii) standardization issues with the measurement of embodied energy, (iii) issues with considering climate criteria in the awarding decision, (iv) an inconsistency between ‘procurement logic’ and ‘planning logic’, (v) competing perspectives on implementing climate-related aspects in the planning stage, (vi) competing normative grounds for climate action, and (vii) different problem and solution frames. Our findings emphasise that making climate considerations an integral part of the procurement process places high demands not only on the executing procurer, but also on the prospective user of the building, the architects involved in the architectural competition and the awarding committee. While additional regulatory requirements will be necessary for promoting a low-carbon procurement of public buildings, they will certainly not be sufficient. Even more crucial will be to facilitate a collective learning process that allows stakeholders to jointly develop effective strategies and consider climate change from the very beginning of the procurement process.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021
Event12th International Sustainability Transitions Conference: Mainstreaming sustainability transitions: from research towards impact - Karlsruhe, Germany
Duration: 5 Oct 20218 Oct 2021


Conference12th International Sustainability Transitions Conference
Abbreviated titleIST 2022
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