Better Buildings Can Limit Climate Change

Climate change is the most important known-to-be-solvable problem of our time. Because buildings are the largest contributor to carbon emissions, slightly exceeding the carbon from automobile use in the U.S., reducing energy use by half in existing buildings is a necessary step to cut climate pollution and meet the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. It is also a great way to do it because of its health, productivity, and comfort benefits and because of the jobs it creates.

A new paper by myself, Peter Turnbull, and Cathy Higgins that I presented this month at the ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings shows how.

Climate change is not a problem for the remote future or in faraway places: it is here and now. I did not have to hire a private plane to take these pictures of melting glaciers—I found them among photos I had already taken for artistic reasons.

All photos (c) 2018 David B. Goldstein

This last picture of the smoke-red sunrise is what I saw right from my home: all I had to do was take out my camera and press the button. It was the reddest sunrise I have seen in the 41 years I have lived in San Francisco—caused by smoke from climate-change-induced wildfires that were over 50 miles from my house. (The smoke later caused me to get pneumonia, according to my doctor, indicating that climate change is not only about the health of the environment, it’s about our health too.)

Climate change is a critical problem. But it is largely a solvable one. The 195 countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement have pledged to limit the increase in global warming to well below 2 degrees, while making best efforts to keep it beneath 1.5 degrees. A comprehensive NRDC study lays out a clean energy pathway for the U.S. to do its share of meeting a 2 degree trajectory, and more recent work shows how we can stop at 1.5 degrees. This requires six major additional initiatives, which are briefly sketched in this work.

Our current paper delves into how to start on one of these:  a massive new effort to  improve the energy performance of all existing buildings by double over the next 12 years. This will entail a concerted scale-up of existing weatherization and retrofit programs in the U.S. by about 250 times: about 80 times as many homes each year at about three times the cost per home.

But we have done it before on a pilot scale—at least twice, as documented in the paper. My co-authors, who are professionally experienced in running and providing the research underlying such programs, agree that such a program is a realistic goal. And we have plenty of experience—experience that is growing at an exponential rate, on how to bring both new and existing buildings to near zero or at net zero energy consumption, a much more ambitious goal than our proposal to save 50 percent.

There are lots of important details that need to be addressed in such programs, and the paper describes several of them. They include four areas of focus: 1) the need to value the full range of benefits from more efficient buildings, such as health, productivity, and comfort, 2) address the gap between cost of retrofits and energy savings, 3) make policy progress that supports deep retrofits, and 4) develop new products, installation skills and processes that make retrofits more efficient and cheaper. We call this last item “industrializing” retrofits and it is market-facing approaches like this, and demonstrating value to the real estate industry, that can be game-changers for accelerating deep energy reductions in existing buildings.  

This process by its very goal of 100 percent participation pretty much ensures that those hardest hit by climate change and those communities that are most vulnerable economically are well-served so they too can experience improved health, lower energy costs, and more comfortable homes. But we also need to recognize that lower income households deserve the same physical improvements as everyone else, and are not last in line to get them.

The radical optimism expressed in this paper is not just the author’s.  And it is not intended to make you feel like everything is going well for the climate: quite the contrary. It is intended to inform policy makers and the public that the climate problem can be greatly reduced, but only if we work a lot harder at it. (“We” in this sentence refers mostly to policy makers—the programs suggested in the paper and in the hot-linked articles do not require much effort from the public other than supporting the policies.)

If we think the problem is hopeless, we will not even try to solve it. If we understand that we can solve it, we may be motivated to do so. That was the purpose of writing the paper and why I am happy to see the following outcome:

The presentation of the paper spawned a robust informal dialogue in mid-August attended by over 100 people in the energy efficiency in buildings space. We hope to develop this group into an ongoing exchange of methods and advocacy needs. If you are interested in participating, please email Cathy Higgins, Research Director at New Buildings Institute at higgins@newbuildings.org.

About the Authors

David B. Goldstein

Energy Co-Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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