The Building Industry’s Link to Climate Change: Northwestern’s 2017 Symposium

Arlene Haas, JD

Posted by Arlene Haas, JD

Northwestern University’s Institute for Sustainability and Energy has sponsored the Northwestern Climate Change Symposium since 2009. The two-day 2017 symposium (November 9-10) had three simultaneous tracks: policy, science, and business. We attended both days and focused on the policy track. The presentations we are highlighting here touched on the building sector’s role in climate change and ways the industry could proactively reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Person_holding_globe_by_Slava-Bowman.jpgPhoto by Slava Bowman

IEA Tracking: Current Status of Building Sector Energy Performance

Dr. Eric Masanet, Northwestern Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Chemical and Biological Engineering, has served as the Head of the Energy Demand Technology Unit at the International Energy Agency (IEA), created to work on energy matters for its member countries. He discussed IEA’s 2017 Tracking Clean Energy Progress, the agency’s annual report evaluating different technologies for their ability to meet the internationally agreed target limiting global warming to 2℃.

According to Dr. Masanet, the energy sector remains critical to sustainable economic growth. As people improve their standard of living, they increase their energy use. Therefore, countries with the highest level of human development also have a corresponding raised level of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions. We need to improve world-wide energy efficiency and carbon capture to be become carbon neutral by 2060 and still allow for economic growth.

Dr. Masanet touched on a number of areas that need to achieve greater progress in CO₂ reductions, including the building sector. We took a look at the 2017 Tracking Clean Energy Progress report which found that building energy performance is not on track. Despite many countries’ adoption of building energy performance policies, there has been little change in building energy use per person since 1990. According to the report: “Global building-related CO₂ emissions have continued to rise by nearly 1% per year.”

To spur greater progress in the building sector, the 2017 Tracking Clean Energy Progress report recommends several solutions including a world-wide effort to: “rapidly expand, strengthen, and enforce building energy policies across countries to prevent the lock-in of long-lived inefficient building investments.”

The report also found that building envelopes are not on track despite many countries and local jurisdictions enacting building energy codes. Initiatives must be adopted that promote the renovation of existing buildings to improve their energy performance.

Additionally, Dr. Masanet noted that cement, central to the building industry, is one of the largest contributors of CO₂ emissions, largely due to the cement production process. To significantly reduce cement’s CO₂ emissions, we need to develop low-carbon cement chemistries.

Using a Carbon Tax to Fight Climate Change

Greg Bertelsen, Senior Vice President, Climate Leadership Council (Council) spoke about his organization’s carbon tax proposal as a solution to global warming. According to their website, “The Climate Leadership Council is an international policy institute founded in collaboration with a who’s who of business, opinion and environmental leaders to promote a carbon dividends framework.”

The Council is proposing a gradually rising tax on CO₂ emissions at points where fossil fuels initially enter the economy. This tax will encourage downstream adjustments over time that cause CO₂ emissions reductions. The dividends from the tax would be paid to United States citizens to help achieve broad support for the tax. Also, to level the playing field for American businesses, the proposal includes a border tax based on the carbon content of exports and imports. Any regulations replaced by the carbon tax could be repealed.

The carbon tax would be an attractive option for many in the building industry, in part, because of the possibility that it would replace regulations. According to Mr. Bertelsen, one value of the tax approach is that it allows businesses to decide where to use their money. Businesses that invest in carbon-reducing technology and materials will have a competitive edge, especially with respect international competitors.

Mr. Bertelsen made the point that development of regulations is a lengthy process and regulatory standards come and go with changing administrations. As an example, the Trump administration intends to replace President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the rules governing CO₂ emissions from power plants that took many years to finalize. In contrast, the carbon tax has bipartisan support and is likely to survive changing administrations.

The Council’s ultimate goal is the worldwide adoption of the carbon tax. The program is designed to push other countries to adopt a similar approach once it becomes United States policy.

Improving the Real Estate Supply Chain in China

The symposium also offered opportunities to learn about international activity to reduce CO₂ emissions. Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), spoke about his efforts in China, the nation ranked as the number one emitter of CO₂. IPE is a non-profit environmental research organization located in Beijing, China.

According to Mr. Jun, his organization’s mission is to develop novel ways to reduce pollution in China given the nation’s very poor enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

The majority of the Chinese population supports China’s participation in the Paris Climate Agreement because they are very worried about air pollution and its health impact. Air pollution is a major cause of premature death in China.

IPE created an environmental database to increase transparency, the Pollution Information Transparency Index, that looks at pollution levels in different cities and compiles best practices. Showing pollution levels and ranking performance in each city stimulates a desire for change.

The Green Choice Alliance, another IPE initiatives, uses pollution data to pressure corporations that use Chinese manufacturing to examine their supply chain. IPE and the Natural Resources Defense Council created a Corporate Information Transparency Index that evaluates the environmental impact of different brands’ Chinese suppliers. Apple, for example, once confronted with this data, agreed to require their Chinese suppliers to come into compliance with environmental regulations. Similarly, IPE used to the data to convince Gap and Walmart to pressure Chinese dye houses to reduce water pollution.

IPE is also working with China’s large real estate developers to track and improve their supply chain. According to Mr, Jun, the Chinese real estate and construction industry has a very large carbon footprint, it is responsible for eight percent of global CO₂ emissions. Chinese real estate developers are now using pollution data and their significant buying power to work with cement, iron, and steel suppliers to reduce emissions.

Other Significant Impacts on Building Industry

A number of presenters noted that despite the Trump Administration plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and replace the Clean Power Plan, there is significant work at the local level to reduce CO₂ emissions. A growing number of cities are requiring building energy benchmarking, and New York City’s mayor recently announced the City will mandate building energy retrofits.

We will discuss the topics of some other relevant presentations, Illinois’ NextGrid and Project Drawdown, in future blog posts.

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