Buildings Account for Half of All CO2 Emissions


This post headline is more than just a reminder. It is the proverbial double-edged sword, poised to stick in the gullet of politicians, pundits, businesses, and citizens. Its blade is held above us by a largely unexplored question. Who is responsible for the CO2 emissions of fossil fuel fired electricity-generating plants: utilities or their customers? It is true what the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Government Advocacy Team has pointed out: "the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption in America, as well as around the world, is buildings. Buildings account for an estimated 48% of all green house emissions." But it is also true that if you deducted the portion of those emissions that go up the chimneys of the utilities that power the developed world's buildings, this high level of significance would disappear. The focus would go to transportation.Where then do responsibilities lie: with buildings or utilities? First a disclaimer: this line of reasoning is not applicable to developing nations where people heat and light largely without electricity. And it matters most in the US where Coal is King for electricity.

Lets start with an analogy only indirectly related to climate change. When the "ozone hole" issue was fully revealed by international scientific consensus, a fundamental choice had to be made by the world's governments and industries. The significant control point choices for managing ozone depleteting substances included: the manufacture of ozone depleting substances (the chloro-fluoro chemical makers); appliance and vehicle making; and product end users. Our readers will recall that the Montreal Protocol treaty reduced CFC releases by controlling the manufacture of refrigerant products by nation, starting in the highly developed countries where refrigerant technology was invented. Everything else cascaded down from that decision. Appliance and vehicle design came afterward, and product recycling last.

The key difference between CFC's and CO2 is that CFC's were products while C02 is a nearly worthless byproduct of electricity production. We don't really have any CO2 in hour homes or office, at least none incorporated directly into products we regularly rely on. Hence, there's no personal sense of "owning the problem;" and, as a result, consumers feel removed from personal responsibility when electricity is "on the table.". This is not that case for oil and gas burning appliances of course. But there are many buildings that are chimney-less. Leaving us where? Blaming the utilities? Waiting for government to "control" their operations? Leaving building owners and designers to go without responsibility?

Architectural design and interior décor selection make the nexus of personal responsibility in this matter. (Engineering and "developement" take a close second.) So we were pleased to see a sense of ownership among designers when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Government Advocacy Team recently issued a press release with the following advocacy message. (SAD NOTE: this otherwise inspiring site is Internet Explorer browser-ready only.)

"The US Conference of Mayors understands the problem, and the Mayors of Chicago, Seattle, Miami, and Albuquerque recently jointly proposed Resolution No. 50, which sets a goal for carbon neutral buildings by 2030. The resolution closely mirrors the goals established in the AIA's Position Statement on Sustainable Practice and would further stakeout a leadership role for architects in addressing the nation's energy needs.

The US Conference of Mayors membership will be voting on final adoption of this measure during their Annual meeting, which occurs the first week of June. As such, we urge you to contact your Mayor as soon as you can, and ask your mayor to support Resolution 50, which is formally titled: Adopting the "2030 Challenge" for City Buildings".