Buildings are a leading source of climate change causing greenhouse gas, and as such they are an essential part of carbon reduction efforts. Driven by lower costs and carbon abatement, green buildings offer tremendous benefits. New technologies like smart systems that access data in real time make it easy to identify savings opportunities. Buildings are becoming more efficient and their energy demand is expected to keep declining. This may be why the building sector and energy efficiency have outpaced most official projections.
In an essay for Foreign Affairs’ Hal Harvey thinks climate advocates should forget about pipelines and focus on buildings. According to Harvey activists should be pressuring state and national regulators overseeing building codes and calling on them to enact more aggressive rules.
“Buildings emit nearly a third of U.S. carbon dioxide, and a great building code can cut energy use in new construction by 80 percent,” Harvey writes. “This kind of targeted, realistic strategy, which focuses on the most consequential decisions and is backed by a deep understanding of who makes the key choices, might not be as exciting as calls for revolutionary change,” Harvey wrote adding, “But it would work.”
With the support of local governments green building projects are proliferating. Microsoft is demolishing 13 buildings on its 500-acre Redmond, Washington, campus to make room for 18 green buildings. Schools are also embracing energy efficiency and saving money in the process. They are also leading an energy revolution. The University of Queensland in Australia now gets all of its energy from solar. Environmentally sustainable buildings like the LEED platinum certificated, Bentley Arena have cut energy demand and emissions by half compared to traditional arenas.
These examples and many others like this make a compelling case for green buildings and governments are increasingly paying attention We are seeing green building policy support from governments like San Jose which adopted an ordinance that requires the electrification of all new building construction. New York State has launched a $30 million competition to encourage the construction and operation of low- or zero-carbon buildings.
Sometimes the only impetus required is transparency. In Sweden buildings are mandated by law to show how much energy they use. This has spurred innovation like a high-rises that gets all its heat from the body heat of the occupants and electrical appliances.
Government investments in efficiency offer significant opportunities. However, the Trump administration has adopted a policy of energy inefficiency that includes illegally delaying federal building efficiency standards for three years (in October 2019 a federal appeals court ordered the DOE to implement the standards).
Harvey correctly says that focusing on green building is a “realistic strategy” that “would work”. While this is undeniably important it is only part of the solution. Harvey seems to dismiss revolutionary change as overly ambitious, but this is precisely what the science tells us we need. We are on the cusp of the collapse of civilization and we are running out of time. Green buildings on their own will not be enough to keep temperatures from surpassing the upper threshold limit agreed to in the Paris climate agreement. To do this we will need a paradigm change that will drive a coordinated multi-tiered response which includes an energy revolution.