December’s United Nations climate negotiations (COP21) in Paris raised a pinnacle of awareness and attention to climate solutions, which was fueled by an unprecedented business presence and cities visibly showing their efforts to achieve measureable progress in reducing carbon emissions.
During the first-ever COP Buildings Day, the overwhelming theme was that buildings are an essential part of the solution to carbon emission reductions. The U.S. Green Building Council announced it will commit to scaling green buildings and energy efficiency in buildings to more than 5 billion square feet (478 million square meters) over the next five years through the LEED green building rating system, as well as supporting adoption of EDGE (Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies, a fast, easy-to-use certification system) as a key tool for energy efficiency in developing countries.
In the U.S., commercial and residential buildings consume about 70 percent of retail electricity and about 40 percent of total energy. Another five percent of the total energy consumption is from building materials and construction. A 2009 study by McKinsey, titled “Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy,” highlights buildings for cost-effective gains in energy efficiency — and by extension, carbon emissions — using existing technology. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that buildings offer the greatest potential for achieving significant GHG emission reductions, at least cost. And the International Energy Agency estimated that available technologies could reduce projected energy use in buildings 41 percent by 2050, thereby avoiding roughly 40 percent of current global fossil carbon dioxide emissions.
High-performing green buildings, in particular LEED-certified buildings, provide the means to reduce with maximum effect the climate impacts of buildings and their inhabitants. A 2014 academic study found LEED buildings offer greater benefit to the climate than energy efficiency credits alone. Compared to conventional construction, the buildings used 50 percent less greenhouse gases due to water consumption; 48 percent less greenhouse gases due to solid waste; and 5 percent less greenhouse gases due to transportation.
These buildings are designed and built in consideration of the lifecycle and meant to actively influence inhabitants in ways that support the climate. They also create the opportunity for more composting and reduced landfill waste; enable alternative transportation; direct inhabitants to non-energy using alternatives; and encourage retention and creation of natural vegetated land areas and roofs. LEED also rewards thoughtful decisions about building location, with credits that encourage compact development and connection with transit and amenities, that all serve to reduce building and inhabitant carbon impact. These strategies significantly reduce the carbon footprint of buildings beyond energy efficiency alone. Providing inhabitant feedback with systems like the LEED Dynamic Plaque, which showcases a building’s environmental efforts and performance, can drive further reductions.
Leaders in the building and real estate sectors have already seen this nexus of climate change and green buildings. For example, a growing number of companies in our sector have or will join the Building and Real Estate Climate Declaration, a collaborative effort from the Carbon Leadership Forum, Ceres, and USGBC to spotlight the role of green buildings in climate action. Along with individual company efforts, this and other commitments help to scale up and increase the pace of actions to move to a low carbon economy.
Companies see that addressing climate change creates economic opportunity. And as the demand for green buildings continues to grow, companies that provide products, building services, and buildings, will positively impact their bottom line and the environment through cost-effective reductions in carbon emissions.
Elizabeth Beardsley is senior policy counsel at the U.S. Green Building Council.
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