We know that the only approach to mitigate climate change is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But what causes the most pollution? Recent soundbites make it difficult to determine.
The burning of fossil fuels produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which builds up in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said: “I want to think about the three areas where we receive the highest carbon pollution in America right now” during CNN’s Climate Change Forum earlier this month. What exactly are they? Yes, they are in the homes and buildings we are destroying. We travel in our light-duty trucks and autos. And in order to do that, a lot of carbon-based fuel is still being used in the production of power.
Since each of these sectors contributes to the others, the CO2 emissions “pie” is more intricate than the sector-by-sector breakdown. In order to solve the issue, it is crucial to comprehend how exactly buildings contribute to carbon emissions. And it turns out that buildings affect carbon emissions on a number of fronts, including their location, use, and construction.
Buildings are a Bigger Contributor to Climate Change Than Cars
This June was the hottest in American history. The 116-degree heat melted power cables in Portland, Oregon, and smashed previous temperature records. Seattle recorded an all-time high of 108 degrees, as did the Canadian province of British Columbia, at a whopping 121 degrees.
As the world warms, more people are installing air conditioning. Global energy demand for cooling has more than tripled since 1990 and could more than double between now and 2040 without stricter efficiency standards.
But air conditioning itself is a major contributor to global warming. Altogether, building operations that include heating, cooling and lighting account for 28% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the entire global transportation sector.
But SkyCool, Gradient and a number of other companies are working on the problem. They’re trying to apply new technologies to the traditionally inflexible heating and cooling industry, finance the upfront costs, communicate the value to property owners and make sure it’s all done equitably.
Emissions and Trends
Gross U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases have dropped by 7% since 1990. Emissions may increase or decrease from year to year as a result of adjustments to the economy, fuel prices, and other variables. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by 11% in 2020 compared to levels in 2019. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-related reductions in travel and economic activity, including a 13 percent decrease in transportation emissions driven by less travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, were major contributors to the sharp decline in emissions, which were primarily CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The COVID-19 epidemic caused a modest drop in electricity demand, and the continuous switch from coal to less carbon-intensive natural gas and renewable energy sources resulted in a 10% reduction in emissions for the electric power sector.
What is the carbon footprint of a building?
According to the United Nations Environment Program, buildings and their construction account for 36% of yearly worldwide energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, residential and commercial structures use 40% of the country’s total energy.
Building emissions are a mixture of two things as they are generally quantified. The first is regular energy consumption, also referred to as “operational carbon emissions,” which is caused by running heating, cooling, and lighting systems. Building operations are responsible for around 28% of emissions worldwide each year. The quantity of carbon produced as a result of the production of building materials, transportation of resources to construction sites, and the actual construction activity comes in second.
How can the building sector reduce carbon emissions?
According to UN Environment, the built environment’s energy intensity—a measure of how much energy buildings use—will need to improve by 30% by 2030 in order to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement’s objectives, which are to keep the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The building sector’s energy intensity is increasing by roughly 1.5 percent yearly globally, although some of those gains are being somewhat offset by an increase in the number of structures (global floor area is increasing by about 2.3 percent annually). If scaled-up action is not taken, building-related carbon emissions are anticipated to quadruple by 2050.
In the building sector, decarbonization, or the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, can take many different forms. This week, a report on how the building industry and associated municipal, regional, and federal policy might reduce emissions was published by the World Resources Institute. Even though all buildings must be carbon-neutral by 2050 in order to fulfil the Paris Agreement’s objectives, only 1% of them are, according to the study.
A net-zero structure, which generates as much renewable energy on-site as it consumes for the grid, could represent decarbonization. A building that is net-zero carbon, or that generates as much energy from carbon-free renewable sources locally or nearby as it consumes yearly, goes one step further. A building is considered to be net-zero carbon if it produces enough renewable energy to cover its annual energy needs and offset the carbon produced during construction.
How are cities reducing carbon emissions from their buildings?
Buildings cannot be decarbonized in a gradual manner. Policy at the municipal, state, and federal levels of government is what we need. New residential building is not permitted to have gas hookups in cities like Berkeley and San Jose. In its Climate Mobilization Act, which mandates building retrofits to achieve a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, New York City has approved a number of new measures. Cities abroad are moving even further. 25 cities from around the world have so far committed to making all new structures carbon-neutral by signing the C40 promise.
But net-zero design isn’t the only solution to the problem of building emissions. The architecture, design, and construction industries will need to undergo significant transformation since it really is about how people live, work, and conceptualize our environments. Transportation, which, according to the EPA, is responsible for around 29% of carbon emissions in the United States, enters the picture at this point as well. The what and where of construction in America—the land use policies—are a significant contributor to this issue. In other words, it’s sprawl that depends on cars. Denser construction, construction nearer transportation, more transit construction, and amenities like on-site bike storage can all be helpful in this situation.