Buildings are a major source of energy use in the United States. Constructing new buildings, and then heating, cooling, and otherwise powering them once they're in use accounts for a hefty chunk of overall electricity consumption. This means that the energy efficiency of the building sector has enormous implications for the country’s ecological footprint and ultimate ability to meet its climate goals. To put this in perspective: from 2005 to 2022, the U.S. added a whopping. 62.5 billion square feet to its building stock — this could be approximately equated to adding six cities the size of Boston each and every year. But over the past two decades, the U.S. building sector has made incredible advances in reducing the amount of energy used to build new structures, and therefore in reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.
For most of the country’s industrial history, growth in the buildings sector was directly connected with growth in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. “However, in 2005, something extraordinary happened,” The Hill recently reported. That near-miracle was that “building operating energy and emissions decoupled from building sector growth.” According to figures from Architecture 2030, the carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per square foot of floor area) of U.S. buildings has declined by a remarkable 39.8 percent for residential and 43.7 percent for commercial buildings since 2005. Energy consumption in the building process has drastically decreased, and “from 2010 to 2022, residential and commercial building energy consumers saved approximately $530 billion total from 2010 projected energy costs.”
This incredible evolution is projected to continue: low- and zero-emissions architectural planning is improving and continues to be increasingly adopted. Policy instruments supporting zero-carbon standards for new buildings and major renovations are also proliferating, and 158 of the 196 parties to the Paris Agreement now include emissions from buildings in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
What’s more, renewable energy is growing at an unprecedented pace in Europe, largely thanks to an energy crisis spurred by Russian President-cum-autocrat Vladmir Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. On this side of the Atlantic, President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is offering billions of dollars in incentives and subsidies for clean energy projects, representing the single biggest climate bill the country has ever seen.
This is hugely hopeful news for emissions targets and climate goals at the national and global scales. Indeed, The Hill called the building sector a “climate bright spot.” However, there is still a lot of work to do. Buildings’ embodied emissions (i.e., the emissions associated with building materials, construction and sitework, which can account for up to half of the carbon footprint of new buildings over their lifespan) must also be halved by 2030 to meet climate goals. And then the energy use within those buildings for heating, cooling, and other electricity needs must also be reduced where possible, and the rest sourced from clean energy sources.
Luckily, there is already progress being made in these regards as well. In the building sector, “new design strategies and calculation tools to reduce and sequester embodied carbon have been developed (including EC3, Carbon Smart Materials Palette, Pathfinder, Tally, CARE Tool, EPIC and One Click LCA among others) and are increasingly being used.” In terms of more efficient heating and cooling, there is also major progress being made, particularly through the increased use of heat pumps. If applied widely, heat pumps could reduce the United States’ energy consumption by up to 50%.
What’s more, we have already seen that drastically reducing the energy footprint of building technologies is entirely possible. Historically, lighting represented the biggest use of energy within the commercial sector, but the improved technology and increased application of high-efficiency lighting has completely changed this. Now, the biggest use of commercial energy is computing equipment, but with a focus on energy efficiency there is hope that this, too, could be drastically reduced through improved technology, accompanying policy tools, and widespread adoption. Ultimately, money talks, and more energy efficient buildings and building components are not only better for the environment, they’re better for the bottom line. This means that the building sector could continue to be a “climate bright spot” and a guiding light for other, more challenging sectors as the deadline for carbon neutrality grows ever closer.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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