Green Buildings Key to Reducing Energy Use and Climate Impacts

In a session at the U.S. Green Building Council’s government summit, Niclas Svenningsen, Sustainable Buildings & Climate Initiative, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the global building market is expected to grow from $7.2 trillion to $12 trillion in just the next few decades. New or renovated building growth is centered in China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, Russia, and Canada. However, even without this new growth, buildings account for a huge share of global resources: almost 30 percent of energy and 20 percent of water. Worldwide, buildings also create 30 percent of the world’s solid waste. He added that in the U.S., buildings actually account for almost 50 percent of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Given these huge numbers, buildings also offer the best opportunity for “significant reductions” in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the challenge in developing countries is somewhat different: it’s how to create more energy. Energy poor countries actually need to boost their energy production, but Svenningsen thinks this can be done efficiently so developing countries make the best use of their limited energy sources. He said even in North Korea, there is a program for building energy efficiency, and the UN is helping there with sustainable design practices. In fact, this is one of the few areas where the UN can have a program in that country.

Some 52 countries have created national green building policies. UNEP reviewed these plans and found that there are 20 different policy instruments including control and regulatory, economic and market-based, fiscal, and informal or voluntary. He said policies can be the most cost-effective way to implement a national green building program.

Africa, which is falling behind in green buildings, uses mostly voluntary labeling and information campaigns. “There are a few test projects here and there.” In southeast Asia, India, Brazil, and Australia, there has been a “bottom-up” legislative approach driven by local governments and, especially, city governments. In the U.S., China, Japan, and E.U., there have been “top-down” policy and regulatory approaches. Svenningsen said in these countries “climate change is driving the agenda, but energy security may actually be more important.” He believes that movements like the U.S. Green Building Council are necessary to building national programs.

In the near future, Svenningsen sees “more stringent regulations, increased funding, and more cross-feeding of issues.” UNEP is working to ensure green buildings become a core component of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and are incorporated into the follow-up discussions of the Rio Earth Summit. Svenningsen believes much more work needs to be done to ensure the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in the UNFCCC, which provides financing to developing countries for undertaking climate change programs, channels funds towards green building projects. “Out of 7,000 CDM projects, just 30-40 focused on green building projects. This is a failure. Clearly not good enough.” Lastly, UNEP is working on greening the many UN buildings across the globe, which have a combined carbon footprint equal to the city of London. 

Zooming into one world region — Europe, Austrian Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment, and Water Management, Guenter Liebel, discussed how passive houses, which are popular in Europe but less prevalent in the U.S., are highly cost effective and efficient. He said these types of buildings, which are well-insulated, virtually air-tight homes that rely on passive solar gain, are central to fighting climate change. “You can’t have a climate policy without a buildings policy.” He says green buildings provide a high degree of comfort, use resources responsibly, have low running costs, and use small amounts of energy and water.

In 2007, the European Union (EU) passed 20-20-20 climate and energy directives that call for the share of renewables to be increased to 20 percent, energy efficiency to be improved by 20 percent and greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 20 percent by 2020. The EU noted that buildings consume 40 percent of energy and account for 36 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The EU directives also call for all new buildings from 2020 onwards to be net-zero.

Passive houses are the “front runners in green buildings” in Europe. Austria, Liebel said, has the highest per capita share of these types of buildings, which are 4-8 percent more expensive than regular buildings but up to 90 percent more energy efficient. A passive house can reduce annual home energy budgets from $2,900 to $260. In one complex of more than 400 passive house apartments, tenants in 400 square feet apartments pay just $9 a month for energy. Liebel said 25 percent of new buildings are now built to passive house standards.

Austria has put in place requirements for housing subsidies as a way to incentivize the roll-out of passive houses. Green building laws in that country ensure that no one can receive subsidies unless they meet the stringent new standards. For refurbishments, there are special incentives for private homeowners. They receive €5,000 per building if they invest €40-50,000. Some 20,000 private homeowners have used this approach to redo their homes and turn them into passive houses. The country has banned the use of oil for heating homes in an effort to move to renewable energy production.

Liebel also said Austria has invested heavily in training its architects and “improving the quality of our professionals.” The goal is to create 100,000 new green building jobs by 2020.

Image credit: Passive House, Natural Home & Garden / Scott Shigley Photography

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.