Columbus Takes Bold Steps to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Buildings account for 58 percent of Columbus’ greenhouse gas emissions and requiring owners to track and report annual energy and water use is a foundational first step in reducing those emissions.

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UPDATE: The City of Columbus took a big step toward meeting its carbon reduction goals by passing a new benchmarking and transparency ordinance. All large building owners and operators will now be required to track and report their building’s energy and water use, unlocking critical information that can help inform how to take action to save energy, water, and money.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously on March 16, is a win-win for Columbus’ developer and real estate community, energy industry, and residents. Prospective commercial tenants and residents will be able to consider a building’s energy use as one of the many factors they weigh when determining where to work or live. Building owners will have information about how their building performance compares with peer buildings to prioritize future energy efficiency investments. With a projected 3 to 4 percent annual reduction in carbon emissions, community members will benefit from cleaner air and a healthier environment. 

The new ordinance focuses on buildings in the commercial, multifamily, and industrial sectors, and will require City facilities over 25,000 square feet and non-City facilities over 50,000 square feet to benchmark their energy and water consumption using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Portfolio Manager tool. The ordinance will collect and present critical information about energy and water use for tenants, businesses, investors, and lenders. Whole-building, annual performance metrics will be shared with the community through a public-facing online map beginning in 2022.

Columbus plans to hire a full-time employee to implement and manage the benchmarking program, including robust outreach, education, and training sessions for building owners. Adoption of this policy further demonstrates Columbus’ climate leadership and solidifies the city’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The City of Columbus, Ohio could soon ask its building owners to track and report how much energy and water is used at their properties as part of a new benchmarking and transparency ordinance. If city council passes the policy, it would help the city slash greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change from the building sector. The move is just the latest in a series of efforts made by Columbus—a regional and economic powerhouse and one of 25 leadership cities in the United States selected to participate in the American Cities Climate Challenge—to create more livable communities by becoming more climate friendly.

How would benchmarking and transparency work?

Buildings account for 58 percent of Columbus’ greenhouse gas emissions and requiring owners to track and report annual energy and water use is a foundational first step in reducing those emissions. Benchmarking results give building owners reliable data to make more informed investment decisions and provide the City of Columbus with valuable insight to help inform future program and policy decisions.  

The proposed benchmarking and transparency ordinance would apply to all commercial and multifamily buildings 50,000 square feet or larger and municipal buildings 25,000 square feet or larger. City council is expected to review and vote on the proposed ordinance in the first quarter of 2020. If city council passes the ordinance, Columbus would be the first city in Ohio to pass this type of legislation, following in the footsteps of other Midwestern cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Des Moines. This smart step forward by Columbus is an example of how cities are rising to the challenge to cut greenhouse gas emissions despite limited climate action at the state and federal levels.

Building owners and residents stand to benefit

The benchmarking and transparency ordinance will provide building owners with a baseline understanding of where their buildings fall on the efficiency scale. Those building owners interested in reducing energy use can tap into Columbus’ Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program implemented by the Columbus-Franklin County Finance Authority. The program helps finance cost-effective energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy projects that reduce energy consumption and utility and maintenance costs.

Since the Authority authorized C-PACE financing in Columbus in 2016, it has financed millions in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects ranging from replacing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and upgrading lighting and elevators to installing on-site photovoltaic panels. Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther is expected to make an announcement on the C-PACE program later this month, which means more good news is likely on the horizon.

Relatedly, Columbus is now exploring adoption of Residential Property Assessed Clean Energy (R-PACE) financing to enable homeowners to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the single-family residential sector. Implementation of an R-PACE program is vital to making energy efficient improvements that will benefit homeowners, residents, and policymakers working to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

These efforts combined demonstrate how Columbus building owners and residents stand to benefit from smart, local climate policies that save them money through reduced utility costs and promote a cleaner, healthier environment.

Local leadership will help create a more livable, climate friendly Columbus

To further guide these climate-focused programs and policies, Mayor Ginther recently announced an ambitious goal in his February State of the City address—to make Columbus carbon neutral by 2050. This commitment will serve as a north star for city officials and community organizations to ensure Columbus remains a healthy and prosperous city for all its residents.

A program the Mayor plans to put on November’s ballot to help Columbus meet its carbon neutrality target is community-choice aggregation. Community-choice aggregation will allow the City to provide its residents with power from 100% renewable energy sources. If residents agree to community-choice aggregation in November, they’ll be able to get all the energy needed to power their homes from wind or solar power by 2022.

“Not only will this help our climate goals and commitments, but it will drive workforce development and job creation in the clean energy sector for our City and region,” said Ginther. These announcements reinforce Mayor Ginther and Columbus’ commitment to reducing and mitigating the impacts of climate change and send a strong message of local leadership in the face of climate inaction at higher levels of government.

Why is this so important?

Columbus’ efforts follow a growing trend of Mayors taking an increasingly prominent leadership role in addressing the effects of climate change. Models show that in the Midwest, climate change is already leading to increased temperatures, reduced air quality, the eighth worst heat-island effect in the country, and extreme precipitation events that are stronger and more frequent.

As Columbus continues to implement climate-friendly programs and policies that will help to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, meet their carbon neutrality goal, and drive economic growth, other cities will look to the Ohio city as a model, providing an example for how local leadership can help to effectively address the climate crisis.

About the Authors

Stefan Schaffer

City Strategist, American Cities Climate Challenge

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