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Buildings and carbon: We can change this madness

Published: February 22, 2024 by Editorial Team

I recently met someone for coffee to talk about energy efficiency. It turned out that my coffee mate, John, has plenty of very good questions about the role buildings can play in energy efficiency.

John is charged with identifying and crafting innovative energy efficient and sustainable building solutions for one of the world’s largest construction groups.

After sharing our respective backgrounds, he leaned in earnestly and asked, “How can we go about monetizing our energy efficiency gains in our buildings and those of our clients in the world of carbon markets?”

I felt like a bit of sham as he looked at me expectantly. In my mind, this has been the travesty, one that is man-made and solvable but mired in complexity. The discussion that morning mirrored countless others I have had with advocates, critics, experts, regulators, utilities, financiers and building science practitioners.

He was asking the right question. Buildings are the largest contributor to climate change. People may be forgiven to think that the transportation sector is the central culprit. Transportation accounts for 28.1 percent of the CO2 emissions in the U.S. The building sector tips the scale at a massive 47.6 percent while industry is responsible for only 24.4 percent.

I have been an advocate in the sustainability, energy, and climate sphere for more than two decades. Sadly, I have become wildly adept at pointing out the challenges of integrating energy efficiency and the carbon mechanisms to help mitigate climate change. The blueprint of a solution seems sometimes out of reach, plagued with man-made obstacles of overlapping stakeholder interests, what is deemed to be cost effective, carbon additionality rules, regulatory constraints and carbon accounting dilemmas.

In my former role of managing an energy efficiency organization, the intersection of energy and carbon was front and center for me. In my current role, we are passionate about accelerating innovative climate solutions. Our efforts engage us in livestock, agriculture, and forestry carbon mitigation projects with meaningful results.

I have not been drawn into an energy efficiency and carbon question for a while now, until that coffee meeting.

The 2013 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the most detailed assessment of climate change to date. Its conclusion is stark. To achieve a 66 percent chance of limiting warming to 2°C, global emissions need to be capped at 1,000 gigatons as measured from start of industrial age. More terrifying is that we had already blown through half of our emission budget by 2011.

What I wanted to tell John was that the changes in our climate are in large part driven by the rising levels of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes (such as deforestation). According to the US Energy Information Administration 74.9 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States is used just to operate buildings. Seventy five percent of our buildings’ energy consumption draws on fossil fuel sources.

I wanted to expound that this picture is going to be exacerbated in the next 20 years. Energy consumption in the built environment is projected to outstrip that of industry and transportation. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel generated electricity can be mitigated in our buildings if there is clear and sufficient incentive. We can meet the Architecture 2030 Challenge of carbon neutral buildings by 2030 if we want. We have everything at our disposal to achieve this, such as integrated passive design, enhanced technologies and materials, occupant awareness and community-scale renewable energy.

I wanted to thump the table in that coffee shop and exclaim that two-thirds of the economic potential to improve energy efficiency remains untapped in the period up to 2035. The cost of delivering 1 quadrillion BTUs of energy from 235 coal-fired plants is around $104 billion. The cost of delivering that same level of energy through the use of building energy efficiency by comparison is $42 billion without the need for those 235 coal plants.

I wanted to remind him that the findings of the 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforced his intuitive sense that buildings were indeed part of the carbon solution. The report stated that buildings offered the largest low-cost potential to reduce our global carbon emissions by 2030.

If the latter is all true and rational, why do we struggle? Smarter people than me have wrestled with this problem posing carve-outs, green allowances, set-asides, and the like to handle the double counting of carbon reductions in buildings. Whether it’s the utility or the building owner, we have man-made barriers that impede the needed return on investment to do what appears to be a no-brainer.

The Maine State House Authority entered into an agreement with a large automaker. This partnership seeks to increase the reach of building energy efficiency in their low income housing through the use of a verifiable carbon reduction program where the automaker is buying the carbon credits. This effort has spread to a campus initiative where funding-for-carbon-credits is open to all U.S. universities, colleges, and K-12 schools.

I wanted to commiserate with my coffee guest and cry out, “That’s it? That’s the sum total of our efforts to link efficiency and carbon markets?” But, I knew he knew all too well.

With political crusaders, forward-looking utility leaders, sustainable architecture, carbon accounting and finance expertise, and our building science community, we can redesign the barriers that limit us in the madness as we hurtle through the last half of our carbon emissions budget.

I had to leave the meeting and hurry to another. We are arranging to meet up again. We’d both like to work on how we can collaborate to reconstitute this paradigm and hopefully make a meaningful impact.