Promoting the green design, construction, renovation and operation of buildings could cut North American greenhouse gas emissions that are fuelling climate change more deeply, quickly and cheaply than any other available measure, according to a new report issued by the trinational Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).
North America’s buildings cause the annual release of more than 2,200 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, about 35 percent of the continent’s total. The report says rapid market uptake of currently available and emerging advanced energy-saving technologies could result in over 1,700 fewer megatons of CO2 emissions in 2030, compared to projected emissions that year following a business-as-usual approach. A cut of that size would nearly equal the CO2 emitted by the entire US transportation sector in 2000.
It is common now for more advanced green buildings to routinely reduce energy usage by 30, 40, or even 50 percent over conventional buildings, with the most efficient buildings now performing more than 70 percent better than conventional properties, according to the report.
Despite proven environmental, economic and health benefits, however, green building today accounts for a only small fraction of new home and commercial building construction-just two percent of the new non-residential building market, less than half of one percent of the residential market in the United States and Canada, and less than that in Mexico.
The report, Green Building in North America: Opportunities and Challenges, is the result of a two-year study by the CEC Secretariat. It was prepared with advice from an international advisory group of prominent developers and architects, sustainability and energy experts, real estate appraisers and brokers, together with local and national government representatives.
“Improving our built environment is probably the single greatest opportunity to protect and enhance the natural environment. This report is a blueprint for dramatic environmental progress throughout North America-mostly using the tools and technology we have on hand today,” says CEC Executive Director Adrián Vázquez. “Green building represents some of the ripest ‘low-hanging fruit’ for achieving significant reductions in climate change emissions.”
Even with rapid growth projected in the green building market across all three countries, the report says public and private sectors must embrace substantial changes to the planning, development and financing of commercial and residential buildings to overcome what it says are significant barriers to the widespread adoption of high-performance buildings throughout North America.
Jonathan Westeinde, managing partner of The Windmill Development Group in Ottawa and the CEC’s advisory group chair, states “As a developer, I rely on the fact that green building is a proven concept-with construction costs and market benefits that are rapidly improving. This report shows what is needed to scale up and put green building at the heart of a healthy, energy-secure North America.”
The report highlights the importance of green building in urban development. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, whose city hosted a CEC symposium on green building in May 2007, states, “Green building is a cornerstone for creating strong, sustainable communities. In Seattle, we are convinced that cities that make the commitment and investment in green development now will have a significant advantage in the long run.”
Report authors describe a number of disincentives to green building to be overcome. For example, how to encourage developers to incur the marginal cost of green building features when the long-term energy-saving benefits will be passed on to the new owners or tenants.
They recommend ways to accelerate the market uptake of green building and make it the standard practice for all new construction and renovation of existing buildings in North America. Among its recommendations, the report calls upon North American government, industry and nongovernmental leaders to:
- Create national, multi-stakeholder task forces charged with achieving a vision for green building in North America;
- Support the creation of a North American set of principles and planning tools for green building;
- Set clear targets to achieve the most rapid possible adoption of green building in North America, including aggressive targets for carbon-neutral or net zero-energy buildings, together with performance monitoring to track progress towards these targets;
- Enhance ongoing or new support for green building, including efforts to promote private sector investment and proper valuation methods; and
- Increase knowledge of green building through research and development, capacity building, and the use of labels and disclosures on green building performance.
The recommendations complement ongoing efforts by federal, state/provincial and local governments as well as industry and trade associations and nongovernmental organizations.
The CEC study notes several government and industry initiatives that promote aggressive energy performance improvements in the building sector. One study completed for the report signals the potential of green building to yield tremendous energy improvements and greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the building sector by 2030, and suggests a path toward zero net-energy and carbon-neutral buildings.
CEC Report: Green Building in North America: Opportunities and Challenges
According to the report:
In Canada, buildings are responsible for:
- 33 percent of total energy use;
- 12 percent of non-industrial water consumption;
- 50 percent of natural resource consumption;
- 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions;
- 10 percent of airborne particulate production; and
- 25 percent of landfill waste generation.
In Mexico, buildings are responsible for:
- 17 percent of total energy use;
- 5 percent of potable water consumption;
- 25 percent of total electricity consumption;
- 20 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions; and
- 20 percent of the waste generated.
In the United States, buildings account for:
- 40 percent of total energy use;
- 12 percent of the total water consumption;
- 68 percent of total electricity consumption;
- 38 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions; and
- 60 percent of total non-industrial waste generation.
In Canada, more than 123,000 new single-family homes were built in 2006. In the United States, an average of 1.24 million single-family homes is built every year. Mexico projects an average of 1 million new homes every year for the next 25 years.
Hundreds of coal-fired power plants, a key source of greenhouse gas emissions, are currently on the drawing boards in the United States. According to one report, 76 percent of the energy produced by these plants will go to operate buildings.
According to the report, Canada’s residential building sector is responsible for approximately 80 megatons of CO2 emissions annually and its commercial building sector for approximately 69 megatons of CO2.
In the United States, residential buildings account for approximately 1,210 megatons of CO2 per year while commercial buildings are responsible for approximately 1,020 megatons of CO2.
In Mexico, residential buildings account for approximately 42 megatons of CO2 emissions annually, while commercial buildings are responsible for approximately 20 megatons of CO2.
In 2001, the carbon associated with energy services to United States buildings alone constituted 8 percent of total global emissions of CO2, equal to all emissions from Japan and the United Kingdom combined.
Beyond individual buildings, poor patterns of building development often lead to congestion and inefficient use of land, resulting in greater energy consumption and travel time, loss of productivity, polluted runoff to surface water and wastewater treatment systems, loss of agricultural lands, fragmented habitats, and fiscal stress to local communities. Two case studies from Toronto indicate that residents of sprawling neighborhoods tend to emit more greenhouse gases per person and suffer more traffic fatalities.
Buildings contribute significantly to the use of key resources such as energy and water. For instance, in the United States, building operations consume 12 percent of fresh water supplies. In Canada, the building sector consumes half of all natural resources used and generates a quarter of all landfill waste. Worldwide, buildings consume around 40 percent of all raw materials.
Urban water run-off is another important building-related impact. Buildings, and transportation infrastructure that serve them, replace natural surfaces with impermeable materials, typically creating runoff that washes pollutants and sediments into surface water. Urban runoff is the fourth-leading cause of impairment of rivers, third-leading for lakes, and second for estuaries in the United States, and a significant problem in many parts of Mexico and Canada as well. In Mexico City, most rainwater flows on impermeable surfaces to the city drainage system; only a small proportion (11 percent) is recharged into the aquifer, causing a greater dependence on neighboring basins and increasing the risk of flooding.
In the United States, the annual cost of building-related sickness is estimated to be $58 billion. According to researchers, green building has the potential to generate an additional $200 billion annually in worker performance in the United States by creating offices with better indoor air.
Studies show that the cost premium to deliver sustainable properties to the market has declined considerably in recent years, and that experienced teams are delivering them at costs competitive with conventional buildings.
Governments at all levels are working to address obstacles to the uptake of green building through the integrated use of building codes; zoning regulations; tax-based incentives; and preferential treatment for green developers (such as fast-track permitting). In addition, green building practices are also being spurred by demand offset programs (in which a developer reduces energy and water demand as a condition of permitting); preferred purchasing; tax shifting; and government-supported research, development, and educational programs.
The US green building industry-almost non-existent a decade ago-is now worth upwards of $12 billion.
Features of Green Building
Early efforts to bring change to the building sector in the 1960s through the 1980s generally focused on single issues such as energy efficiency and conservation of natural resources. Green building now integrates a wide range of building design, construction, and operation and maintenance practices to provide healthier living and working environments and minimize environmental impacts.
Green building features can include high-tech, modern practices such as (to name only a few) sensor-controlled and compact fluorescent lighting, high-efficiency heat pumps, geothermal heating, photovoltaic cell arrays and solar chimneys, on-site cleaning and reuse of wastewater; as well as simple and often time-tested practices like attention to building orientation and design, increased use of fresh air and natural light, improved insulation, radiant cooling systems that take advantage of naturally occurring conditions, managed forest or salvaged lumber products, recycled concrete aggregates, green roofs, rainwater collection, waterless urinals, facilities for bicyclists, permeable pavers, cork flooring, and use of local products.