The revolution starts here: Why the fight against climate change needs to begin where we live

A new report on climate change demonstrates the urgent need to change how we think about cities

Published April 14, 2014 4:10PM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>Songquan Deng</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Songquan Deng via Shutterstock)

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may tell it like it is, but it would be a mistake to characterize its message as all doom and gloom. Yes, the panel has established that climate change is happening, its impacts are already being experienced and are likely to get worse. Yet, crucially, they also say we still have a window of opportunity during which to act. The talking points are all there: We need to act quickly, and aggressively; we need to both use less energy and make the energy we do use less harmful to the environment; we need to reform everything from industry to our daily lives.

Chris Pyke, vice president of research at the U.S. Green Building Council, was one of the 1,250 experts who contributed to the third installment of the IPCC's fifth assessment report, which was released Sunday in Berlin. Pyke spoke with Salon about the work he did on Chapter 9 -- evaluating the impact of residential and commercial buildings.

Some findings of note: Our buildings account for 32 percent of our global energy use, and, as a result a considerable amount of CO2 emissions. As that energy demand increases, emissions will grow as well, anywhere from 50 to 150 percent over current levels by 2050. By that time, up to 70 percent of the world's population could be living in urban areas, many of which have yet to be built.

So maybe Pyke is biased, but according to him, if we're going to turn global warming around, the places we live and work are as good a place as any to start.

Why don’t you tell us first about your work at the U.S. Green Building Council, and how that helped inform the work you did on the report.

In my role at the Green Building Council, we work on applied problems in terms of high-performance green buildings around the world. Many people may not know this, but although it’s the U.S. Green Building Council, we create green building standards – that is, standards for energy-efficient, high-performing, low-carbon buildings – and they are used both across the U.S. and in over 150 countries around the world. We also create standards for people, to get recognition, and we represent a number of companies and organizations who work on those kind of buildings.

In terms of the chapter, what’s really sort of classic IPCC is that it represents professionals from around the world, from countries as diverse as India, Japan, Brazil, Canada, the U.S. and beyond, and the goal is for them to come together and create an integrative, or holistic, understanding of the state of the science. Chapter 9 is what we call a “sectoral” chapter, which means, basically, we’re looking at one slice of the economy, and a lot of times, it’s also a “demand” chapter – our homes, our offices and so forth are drivers of demand for energy and emissions, and those demands add up on a global basis to create the need for energy, which is often covered in a different IPCC chapter.

So we’re a sector, and we’re a big source of demand. And just to give you a sense of context, the magnitude of the demand for buildings ranges from something on the order of 30 percent of global emissions, outside of the big forestry and agriculture stuff. In the U.S., buildings use almost 75 percent of electricity; so obviously, there are all the emissions that come from that. The other way to think about it is that buildings are connected by vehicles, so everything we do coming to and from buildings is connected to where we put the buildings, and everything we put into the buildings is connected to industrial emissions. So as a buildings guy, we’re sort of at the center of the universe.

As far as the buildings, and some of the major things you’re working on, go, what are some of the big changes that you see as having the most impact?

Well one of the big changes between the last assessment and this one is that the idea of high-performance buildings – energy efficient, low-carbon buildings – has really emerged and gone from a fringe issue, to something where we have tens of thousands of on-the-ground projects that are demonstrating, around the world, that it is possible to create cost-effective, value-creating, low-carbon buildings.

This is a global phenomenon, but I’ll give you an example, just as one instance of where this industry is going:

In the U.S., there’s a well-known facility that was put up by the Department of Energy. It’s in Golden, Colorado, and it’s called the Research Support Facility (unsexy name). This building is notable for two quick reasons: One is that it is Leed Platinum, so it’s uber green and an awesome place to work, and it is zero net energy and operations. This building is energy efficient enough that it produces all the energy it needs to meet its annual needs. And the cool thing, that makes it notable, is it’s big – it is 222,000 square feet, which is a big commercial office building. It even has a data center, and all sorts of stuff. So basically, when people talk about the idea that buildings have to be sort of humble or tiny to meet these goals – this is not that. This is a big, brawny, industrial strength building that can pull it off.

Another example, in residential, is that there are now tens of thousands of buildings across Europe, and some in the U.S., that use a very aggressive standard called Passive House. This is a house that uses very, very little energy for heating and other basic functions during the year – now on the standard of 90 percent less than the conventional home. So these are, again, not a fringe thing – they’re all over the place.

That wasn’t true in the last assessment. So the big news in our universe is: we now have the ability to deliver at scale some really, really high-performance buildings, and we can begin to move the center of market as well.

What about all the buildings we already have? Are you seeing the same potential to retrofit old buildings, or is your focus mostly on how we can build moving forward?

Great question – it’s both. It’s gotta be both.

In the U.S., we only build or rebuild about one percent of our building stock per year. So 99 percent of the other stuff is existing. So the focus on aggressive retrofit is a big sea change in the industry, and that goes from residential to commercial. We know that we can do what are called deep retrofits, which dramatically improve the energy efficiency of many older buildings. And so yes, we need high-performance new buildings, because that’s a source of growth, and we also need to bring down the existing demand by retrofitting existing buildings. And this is where we need to have integrated programs and policies, from the beginning of planning – where do we put these buildings, what are they going to do – when we build them, how we operate them, how we retrofit them and even how we tear them down – what do we do with the waste, and that kind of stuff. It all matters.

So this really goes beyond individuals adding more insulation, or just living differently – it really needs to be more of an integrated effort?

It includes that, and it goes beyond that as well. Because that is one piece in the lifecycle. Myself, when I choose to upgrade my windows or put in more insulation or put in a fancy thermostat, that is my contribution to the life of that building. However, the energy that building uses was determined by the people who decided where to put it, the architect who designed it, myself as an operator and then the people who come after me. Especially like a home in the U.S. is a 100 year-plus commitment. And we all just play a little part in that.

What’s the situation with the policies we have related to this in the U.S. right now? Where are they lacking and, I know the IPCC doesn’t make recommendations, but where do you see the biggest need?

Right, just to differentiate, IPCC provides scientific technical guidance, and it’s on  the policymakers to interpret that guidance and do something with it.

Some of the exciting pieces of policy are – and there is a lot of exciting policy, even though at a national level we have been a little bit slow to generate new policy, we point out a number of policies that are really at the forefront. We already talked about retrofitting – there are policies to encourage that.

One of the most important things we also talked about are policies to improve transparency of energy performance. In other words, when you walk up to a building, the amount of energy it uses is invisible to you. And consequently, you can’t make a decision to spend more to buy or lease that building, you can’t know if it’s going to cost you more to operate. So one of the most important policy spaces that’s emerged over the past few years has been Energy Performance Disclose and Labeling.

And this is a global phenomenon. In Europe, when folks buy a house, they make take advantage of what’s called an Energy Performance Certificate. If you go to New York City, you’re going to see buildings labeled under what they call Local Law 84. The same thing in San Francisco, with State Law 1103, and that is spreading to Boston, to Philly and to other cities. So at a municipal level, folks are beginning to create more transparency around energy performance. And it turns out that the buildings that perform better are valued higher. They lease for more and the sell for more.

So that policy environment is focused on things like transparency, it’s focused on things like aggressive improvement in energy code – in other words, codes are getting more stringent, and adopted in more places – and we’re seeing things that enable retrofit, like incentives and policies that encourage deeper, more extensive retrofits – things like weatherization.

It's a mosaic of different things around the world, but we are seeing convergence on common solutions. Transparency, incentives and support for increasing stringency of codes.

How does the focus shift when we start talking about developing countries?

So developing countries are different, and one of the conclusions of IPCC, in chapter 9 and actually the whole working group, is that on a business as usual, or what IPCC calls “baseline,” we are headed toward a continued growth in energy demand globally. In buildings alone, by 2050, that could be two times the current level. And a lot of that growth is driven by urbanization and an increase in living standards in the developing world. So India and China are literally building new urban centers. This is primarily a new construction question: how will we meet the needs of those folks so they can have high-quality, safe kinds of housing that we enjoy, and at the same time, we don’t create dramatic increases in energy demand. If you judge by the findings of Working Groups I and II, meeting that demand with conventional approaches will make it nearly impossible to keep the aggregate warming of the planet under about 4 degrees, which is at the high end of the level that creates real risk and damage -- permanent damage, essentially -- to the planet.

Demographically, folks are coming. Their incomes are changing to the point where they have the means and they have the desire for a higher quality built environment. And the question is, how is the world going to help them satisfy that demand? That’s a global question, maybe the global question, for buildings.

It seems like everything you’re talking about needs to happen on a very large, international scale. Do these smaller, piecemeal policies help at all, or does there need to be a more coordinated effort?

I’ll back away from answering the big, value question there, but I will say that globally, if you look from one assessment to the next, there is a sea change in technology, there’s a sea change in policy and there’s an awful lot of groundswell action. We have created a foundation for work. And this is where it comes back to that kind of mosaic of stuff – if you think of building a toolkit that we’re going to need globally to tackle this problem, we kind of have major elements: We absolutely have to have energy transparency. We absolutely have to have an innovations pipeline, so that new technologies come into the market. We absolutely have to have a way to pull the market to adopt those – we have those voluntary green building standards around the world, tens of thousands of projects. Then you have increasingly stringent energy codes – again, maybe they’re fractured in a sense that many countries are doing them differently, but they’re coming and they’re getting more stringent, and then you have incentives for people to actually make those changes, things like financing and the other things we talked about.

So that’s happening. So on one level I can understand that perspective. But if you look at: are we starting to put the pieces on the table? I think objectively, that’s probably the case.

You seem to see a lot of encouraging signs.

I do. I do because I think in some ways, if you look between the last two assessments, on a global basis we have orders of magnitude more buildings doing high-performance stuff. We have thousands and thousands of buildings creating energy transparency, and we have much more stringent codes than we did before.

The other part of the chapter is that quick, aggressive action is needed, because basically, every time you put up a building, you lock in its performance decades into the future. Every time you put up a building that is not as energy efficient as maybe it cost-effectively could be, or you do a retrofit here you leave some opportunity on the table, that’s what we mean by lock-in. Lock-in means it may be decades before you get to go back and make that decision again, and all during that time, it’s using energy, creating emissions.

I think that technical point is a big deal. We do have an urgency to act because of this issue of lock-in. And if you think of this as a frame for policymakers, acting slowly now makes it harder and harder, and more costly, to have low-cost approaches to minimizing the worst risks of climate change.

What’s your understanding of the economics of this – just how much will making these changes cost now as opposed to what it’ll cost in the future?

This is where buildings, again, have kind of an advantage. You can certainly spend a lot – you can spend any amount you want to do energy efficiency. However, you don’t need to. There are lots of cost-effective ways to do energy efficiency now, and to even, increasingly, use things like on-site renewable energy. So there are some big headline numbers in terms of what IPCC thinks the global economic costs of mitigation will be. I defer you to the Summary for Policymakers for the exact specifics, but it’s something on the order that the impacts are 100 times more than the costs.

I know that’s by the end of the century, but speaking to my expertise, in buildings, we have a menu of things you can do today that will pay you back, as a building owner or a homeowner, ranging from instantaneously to quickly. Basically, you can create your own little portfolio, depending on what your resources are and how long your time horizon is. And the cool thing about these investments is, because they reduce your energy consumption, and in so doing reduce your emissions, they literally pay you back.  If you look at new construction around the world, or that example from Colorado – that’s an example where that building was delivered at market rate. That means comparable to any other construction in that part of Colorado. If you look more broadly, you can see buildings that cost anywhere from saving a few bucks – negative – one to two percent, up to, depending on what you want to spend, a couple percentage points more. So these are not dramatic.

At the same time, the other story is that these kind of measures generate what’s called co-benefits. So in other words we knock down conventional air pollutants, and we often generate healthier places to live.

So there’s no reason you can think of not to start now?

No, there’s not. And because of that issue of lock-in, there are a lot of risks to not starting now. Every day we wait, the atmosphere is accumulating the junk.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Cities Climate Change Energy Efficiency Greenhouse-gas Emissions Ipcc Urban Development