As a new decade begins, there are promising developments on the horizon for building decarbonization and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions in residential and commercial construction. While federal support for decarbonization to address climate impacts is at a standstill, non-governmental organizations, state and local governments, and industry are all focused on sustainability and building decarbonization actions that may ultimately lead to real progress. Here are five promising developments for decarbonization that have the potential to shape an active decade of progress.
- Gina McCarthy takes the helm at the Natural Resources Defense Council – Former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy is the new President and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In her role, she will lead more than 700 attorneys, scientists, advocates, and policy experts that make NRDC one of the nation’s foremost environmental action organizations. McCarthy formerly served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, where she strengthened collaboration between environmental and public health agencies across the U.S. to identify and reduce threats to public health. Globally, ozone-depleting greenhouse gas emissions contribute to an array of health problems and premature deaths, as reported in a Boston University study, which noted that increased insulation levels in the U.S. could reduce pollution and improve public health.
- Influential architect Urges Focus on Decarbonization – In a recent piece in Fast Company, Stephanie Carlisle urged architects to prioritize the environmental impacts of the built environment, which accounts for 40% of energy use. Carlisle argues that architects, engineers, and planners have yet to reckon with the impacts of everyday design decisions and would do well to focus not just on operational carbon in buildings, but also the embodied carbon of materials and construction processes. The sheer magnitude of the building industry’s potential contributions to GHG emission reductions can’t be overstated. A conscious effort from the architectural community to consider efficiency and embodied carbon is an encouraging development.
- EPDs Are Driving Construction Business Decisions – Companies and governments increasingly require environmental product declarations (EPDs) for building products they source and specify. An EPD is an independently verified and registered document that communicates information regarding the life-cycle environmental impacts of products. Initiatives like the Architecture 2030, requiring that all new buildings, developments and major renovations be carbon neutral by 2030, have prompted many commercial builders to require EPDs and to make business decisions based on lower environmental impacts.
- Local Governments Act – 2019 saw an increasing number of state and local governments targeting reductions in building emissions. For example, New York’s Climate Mobilization Act seeks to cut building emissions by 30% by 2030. Building owners are expected to meet their targets by making energy efficiency upgrades in existing buildings and/or decarbonizing their energy supply. Owners who don’t meet the requirements can be fined for each ton of excess carbon released into the environment. Other jurisdictions have crafted their own pledges, including Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
- Progress on Energy Efficiency Code Adoption and Enforcement – Long-term reduction in building energy use (and subsequent GHG emissions) requires adoption and enforcement of more robust building energy codes. While energy efficiency codes for residential buildings vary across states (and some states have no statewide energy efficiency code), a study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology shows that the annual energy use across all U.S. states from nationwide adoption of the 2012 IECC relative to current state energy codes ranges from 17% to 21.9% with a weighted national average of 19.2%. As states adopt newer versions of the residential and commercial IECC, enforcement of building energy codes is essential to realizing significant reductions in energy use and subsequent GHG emissions.
As the 2020s begin, it’s encouraging to witness a renewed focus within the building industry on sustainability and the benefits of carbon reduction. Here’s hoping that the visibility of these high-profile activities translates to progress.