Green Buildings May Be Cheapest Way to Slow Global Warming
By incorporating elements such as a solar water heater in a house built in the 1940s, the Now House Project in Toronto is aiming to eliminate energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
By building green--and retrofitting existing buildings--the countries of North America could cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent
North American homes, offices and other buildings contribute an estimated 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year—more than one third of the continent's greenhouse gas pollution output. Simply constructing more energy-efficient buildings—and upgrading the insulation and windows in the existing ones—could save a whopping 1.7 billion tons annually, says a new report from the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an international organization established by Canada, Mexico and the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement to address continent-wide environmental issues.
"This is the cheapest, quickest, most significant way to make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions," says Jonathan Westeinde, chief executive of green developer Windmill Development Group in Ottawa, Ontario, and chair of the CEC report (who admits that green building regulations would be good for his business). But "buildings are not on the radar of any governments … despite being an industry that represents 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions."
The report echoes the findings last year of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which identified building improvements as one way to reduce global warming pollution with "net economic benefit."
"Residential is a slam-dunk, it's just a matter of applying the technology we have," says IPCC author Mark Levine, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who studies these issues. "It's the biggest sector. It's the biggest savings."
Yet, "green buildings"—defined by the report as "environmentally preferable practices and materials in the design, location, construction, operation and disposal of buildings"—represents only 2 percent of the commercial edifices in the U.S. and 0.3 percent of new homes.
"In Europe, they are much ahead of us on building," Westeinde says. "As North Americans we pride ourselves on smaller government and bigger activity in the marketplace. We're not seeing the market react fast enough."
A big part of the problem, he says, is that many builders are loath to invest extra money for more efficient energy and water systems that only translate into cost savings for the eventual owners. Westeinde's company gets around this dilemma by working out long-term financing arrangements with owners, who agree share a portion of their future cost savings with the developer.
He notes, too, that the price gap between energy-efficient and conventional construction might eventually disappear as green buildings become more common. "If everyone is using a certain type of window that drives cost down," Westeinde says. "Green construction is only 4 percent of the market which means the other 96 percent are creating a volume discount for themselves. But if green becomes 50 percent of the industry, that cost differential goes away."
The report calls for the Canadian, Mexican and U.S. governments to set specific targets for green buildings as well as to adopt continental standards, such as siting buildings in a way that maximizes passive solar heating and cooling.
"There is not that great a difference between green building in Oaxaca and Ohio," says Evan Lloyd, CEC director of programs. "It is the best systems and technology that can be applied to reduce energy consumption as well as paying attention to resource inputs."
Combating Climate Change: Building Better, Wasting Less
New York City has nearly one million buildings—many of them woefully energy inefficient. Insulation is spotty at best, single-paned windows leak heat in winter and cool air in summer, and the untold millions of electric appliances they hold suck energy from the grid—many even when turned off. As a result, buildings contribute 79 percent of the Big Apple's 60 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the Mayor's Long-Term Planning and Sustainability Office; the remaining 21 percent stems from cars, trucks and mass transit. In fact, New York City emits roughly the same amount of GHGs as the entire country of Ireland and contributes 1 percent of total U.S. emissions. Worldwide, buildings—both commercial and residential—contribute roughly one third of all GHG emissions despite covering only 0.2 percent of land worldwide. And experts say that reining in pollution from them will be key in the fight to contain climate change.
The good news? "By 2030, about 30 percent of the projected GHG emissions in the building sector can be avoided with net economic benefit," scientists write in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on ways to stave off the effects of global warming.
Five international economic institutions around the world—ABN AMRO, Citi, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase and UBS—as well as four multinational energy services companies—Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens and Trane—cut a $5 billion deal to work together to retrofit existing buildings in 16 of some of the world's biggest cities, including New York, London, Johannesburg, Karachi, Mexico City, Mumbai and Tokyo.
The effort calls for the banks to loan cash to the cities and building owners to make needed changes, and for the power companies to provide the retrofits and guarantees of energy savings. The cities and building owners will repay the loans from monies saved by reduced energy costs. It is hoped that the plan will stimulate the sluggish U.S. and world market for such retrofits: The U.S., which has had an energy efficiency retrofit program for 25 years, is the world leader in this area, yet fewer than 1 percent of the country's buildings have been redone.
"We will all benefit from this, whether small or big, rich or poor," says Berhanu Deresa, mayor of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, whose city is not yet part of the initiative. For example, he notes, the many international buildings that hold United Nations and African Union offices in this capital city could be retrofitted with solar panels to generate electricity. "We have 13 months of sunshine," Deresa adds. "Even if [the U.N.] only equipped their own buildings, that would be a great help."
But retrofitting alone is not enough, says Mark Levine, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, a federal institution that studies a wide range of engineering and scientific issues. He says that builders constructing new commercial and residential buildings in the developing world must incorporate more energy-efficient—and more costly—materials and designs to control greenhouse emissions. "China built an awful lot of buildings very quickly," Levine says. "Until fairly recently [its] buildings were not very good from an energy point of view."
New and existing homes hold the greatest and cheapest hope for gains. According to the Clinton Climate Initiative (an effort to curb climate change launched by former President Bill Clinton), installing thick insulation and double-paned windows as well as using energy-efficient electrical appliances can cut emissions by as much as 50 percent. Simply using efficient ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, washers, dryers and other appliances as well as compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent ones could negate the need for the energy output equivalent of 110 coal-fired 600-megawatt power plants that might otherwise be needed in the U.S. by 2020, according to a report by the consultancy think tank McKinsey Global Institute.
Adding features like solar generators or solar water heaters can pay for themselves over a longer term as well. "I think residential is a slam dunk," Levine says. "It's just a matter of applying technology that we already have."
Another area where cities can play a major role in warding off warming is waste management, enhancing efficiency by taking relatively cheap and simple steps such as capturing the latent power in landfills or recycling. "Things like waste recycling or waste minimization actually avoid greenhouse gas generation," says waste management expert Jean Bogner, a lead author of the IPCC report. For instance, making a beverage can from recycled aluminum uses only 5 percent of the energy it would take to create one from scratch. "If you recycle in the case of aluminum, you are talking about a 95 percent savings of energy," says IPCC author Lenny Bernstein, an environmental consultant.
The bottom line: buildings contribute a tremendous amount of GHG emissions whereas garbage produces relatively little (roughly 5 percent, according to the IPCC), but both offer immediate cost-effective remedies for climate change. A key to limiting global warming will be making sure that cities from New York to Addis Ababa implement those changes. "Now is the time to start doing real work," says Ken Livingstone, mayor of London. "Retrofitting our buildings and bringing down our carbon emissions."