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Sustainable Buildings and Climate Change

By: Sonja Persram, BSc. MBA, LEED AP - Monday, April 9, 2007
Source: Sustainable Alternatives Consulting, Inc.

Two new reports, one by the UNEP and the upcoming second IPCC report, will be significant in promoting the value of sustainable buildings in mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts.

A UNEP Sustainable Buildings Construction Initiative (SBCI) study released March 29, 2007 entitled Buildings and Climate Change: Status, Challenges and Opportunities,
[i] attests that sustainable buildings have greater potential to reduce GHG emissions than mechanisms currently recommended within the Kyoto Protocol. The study lays out steps for the next round of Kyoto, which if adopted, would have significant impact on global emissions. It may well induce non-signatory countries to act as if they were signatory in this regard, in order to remain competitive.

Additionally, Gordon McBean, president of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and one of the scientists to preview the second Intergovernmental Plan on Climate Change report for 2007, observed that North American cities will have to adapt to climate changes such as increasingly extreme heat waves, droughts, coastal region flooding, and prairie water shortages. He noted that adaptation will require landscape and architectural changes: "We don't want to rush to a massive air-conditioning economy because that will just exacerbate the number of greenhouse gas molecules going into the air … So we need to think through the design of our cities and add more green space and more designs to take advantage of shade and the natural cooling factors."

Impacts of the reports on Canada and the United States
The UNEP SBCI report notes that per capita CO2 emissions in the U.S. total 20.1 tonnes, nearly two times that of China, sixteen times greater than India and fifty times more than Nigeria or Sudan (figures cited in the report). (In 2003, per capita CO2 emissions in Canada were 17.5 tonnes according to the OECD).[iii] Given that the US Energy Agency noted that the building sector represents about 35 percent of primary energy consumption in comparison to transportation, which involves 28 percent of total energy use, and the CaGBC notes that up to 40 percent of Canada’s GHG emissions arise from building operations,[iv] these data demonstrate that Canada, the U.S. and the world stand to benefit greatly by both countries taking serious steps to make both existing and new buildings sustainable.

In fact, "by some conservative estimates, the building sector world-wide could deliver emission reductions of 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2. A more aggressive energy efficiency policy might deliver two billion tonnes or close to three times the amount to be reduced under the Kyoto Protocol," stated Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director at the SBCI study’s launch in Oslo.

"Energy efficiency, along with cleaner and renewable forms of energy generation, is one of the pillars upon which a de-carbonized world will stand or fall. The savings that can be made right now are potentially huge and the costs to implement them relatively low if sufficient numbers of governments, businesses, industries and consumers act."

"The building sector has a considerable potential for positive change, to become more efficient in terms of resource use, less environmentally intensive and more profitable. Sustainable buildings can also be used as a mitigating opportunity for greenhouse gas emissions under the flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol and should be considered as a key issue for the post Kyoto period."

Canada is legally bound via the Kyoto Protocol to reduce the nation's GHG emissions, although it has fallen behind in achieving national target Kyoto obligations and is now stalled in these efforts due to federal government refusal to comply. However, on March 29, 2007 the federal opposition parties collaborated to introduce key amendments to the government's Clean Air Act. These amendments include upholding Canada’s Kyoto commitments and also specify emissions reduction targets of: 6 percent below 1990 levels for 2010-2015, 20 percent below 1990 levels for 2020-2025, 35 percent by 2035 and 60-80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
[v] The House of Commons is expected to vote on this bill soon, and speculation is that this may precipitate an election.

Where other nations are achieving lower energy consumption and GHG emissions via sustainable buildings, both Kyoto signatories that lag in attaining their targets, and non-signatories, will be facing market pressures to reach the same levels of cost savings – as these would impact operations costs, productivity, and asset value, as well as reduce the costly impacts of global warming and climate change.

Some UNEP SBCI report highlights:

Government involvement required
The support by the UNEP for sustainable buildings requires governments to play a significant role, and collaborate with stakeholders to establish effective policy instruments. According to the report

"in most countries (improving the energy efficiency in buildings) … requires active involvement of the government to create a suitable framework for energy efficient buildings… leaving the private sector to address energy efficiency without any external signals is in most cases not feasible."

"… building sector stakeholders themselves, including investors, architects, property developers, construction companies, tenants, etc. need to understand, and ideally support, the tools and strategies the government proposes in order for then (sic) to function effectively."

"Clearly there is a need for policies and associated tools … that encourages a wide support for more energy efficient buildings, including policies regarding energy pricing and taxation, awareness and education, technology access, building safety and so on." The recommendation also advises that policies be congruent in achieving goals, and this congruency be achieved via collaboration among stakeholders.

Support for passive solutions
Buildings and Climate Change: Status, Challenges and Opportunities also addresses the significant opportunity to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions via employing passive solutions, which currently are not eligible within the Kyoto Protocol as flexible instruments in contrast to active measures such as PV. Some quotes on the rationale and process:

"…a building should always be designed with attention to passive solar issues, such as orientation and siting, glazing size and location, natural ventilation, as well as shading strategies. … After having optimized these 'passive solutions,' the builder should also consider the use of energy-efficient materials, such as high-efficiency windows, insulation, bricks, concrete, masonry, as well as interior finishing products."

In the UNEP press release for the study Olivier Luneau, SBCI Chairman and Lafarge’s Director for Sustainability stated, "To achieve improved energy efficiency in buildings you often do not need to use advanced and expensive high-tech solutions, but simple solutions such as smart design, flexible energy solutions and provision of information to the building users."

The study identifies what it would take for passive measures to be included within flexible instruments of Kyoto, namely:

  • Energy efficiency benchmarks for main global regions, involving indicators such as energy performance standards to assess buildings’ energy efficiency within various contexts
  • Derivation of a methodological tool which allows comparison of demonstration projects with conventional buildings
  • Annual energy performance monitoring systems

The report also cites the Building America net-zero-energy goal, so that homes achieve 60-70 percent energy savings by 2020, with solar electricity and heat providing the remaining energy demands for a typical 2200 sf dwelling.

Policy prescriptions
According to the UNEP study each participant in the Protocol "must implement and/or further elaborate policies and measures in accordance with its national circumstances, such as:
"Enhancement of energy efficiency in relevant sectors of the national economy;
"Research on, and promotion of, development and increased use of, new and renewable forms of energy, of CO2 sequestration technologies and of advanced and innovative environmentally sound technologies;
"Progressive reduction or phasing out of market imperfections, fiscal incentives, tax and duty exemptions and subsidies in all greenhouse gas emitting sectors that run counter to the objective of the Convention and application of market instruments (Kyoto Protocol, 1998)."

[i] UNEP, Buildings and Climate Change: Status, Challenges and Opportunities, March 29, 2007

[iii] OECD Statistics: CO2 emissions from energy use in 2003 / total population:

[v] Toronto Star, Friday March 30, 2007

Sonja Persram, BSc. MBA, LEED AP, CEO of Sustainable Alternatives Consulting Inc., is author of Green Buildings: A Strategic Analysis of North American Markets for Frost & Sullivan, addressing Energy, Water and Facilities Management, published by Frost & Sullivan Aug 06.

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