What We Learned from COP21 about Making an Impact and Helping the Impacted

While at the forefront of climate action, President Obama is not alone in recognizing the challenge the global community faces. As published in the October 8, 2015 issue of Rolling Stone during a visit to Alaska, he told Jeff Goodell, “We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair… we’re not moving fast enough.”

The nation’s leader recognizes the heightened sense of urgency surrounding this year’s UN climate talks in Paris, referred to as COP21. One of the biggest surprises of the conference was COP21’s announcement of adjusting its ambitious goal of a 2 degree Celsius cap in global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, or at least “well below 2 degrees”. This change acknowledges even greater urgency by our global leaders, and will help hold off a rippling pattern of weather related consequences around the globe.

Photo from USA Today. 

Real Estate Industry Mobilizes

While much of the recent media surrounding the talks has focused on government policy and commitments to climate change, business groups are also highly engaged in COP21. The diversity of industries and organizations is encouraging.

Notably, building and real estate companies have joined a call for action on climate change, which was announced at the Greenbuild 2015 conference and is a joint effort of US Green Building Council, Carbon Leadership Forum, and CERES.

Why is the real estate industry so motivated to address climate change? Because the single most important factor in capping the 1.5 degree temperature rise is a dramatic reduction in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. The building and construction sector is responsible for 30% of global CO2 emissions, and it could reach 50% by 2050 – a staggering fact that puts a lot of accountability on our industry.

Fortunately, the industry is acknowledging its responsibility and acting. On December 3, for the first time at a UN Climate Change Conference, a Buildings Day was designated, discussing many of the issues related to the real estate industry. Notable focus was placed on the value chain and financing building efficiency.

CERES is also mobilizing businesses to support climate action through a Climate Declaration, signed by more than 1,000 companies and thousands of individuals from across the US. Paladino, along with many of our clients, has supported the declaration to demonstrate our commitment to making a global difference. Skanska, a longtime client offered their reasons for signing.

Skanska is signatory to the declaration because it is consistent with our values and our commitment to embracing the immense economic opportunity and community investment that comes from delivering more sustainable buildings and infrastructure,” said Stacy Smedley, LEED BD+C, LFA, Director of Sustainability at Skanska. “True sustainability in our work addresses more than efficiency and human wellness. It also considers the environmental challenges we face today and in the future.”

The Building Conundrum: Walking the Talk

With buildings making the most significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in the US, our industry is a prime leader for slowing global warming.

But we face a conundrum. With millions of existing homes and buildings and thousands going up every year, the emissions associated with the built environment spread far and wide, and the environmental impact of energy efficiency is realized in the long-term. We can commit to curbing our carbon emissions; the trick is how we can actually achieve it in the near-term to meet the urgency recognized by scientists and leaders.

Solutions do exist: there are crucial design, construction, and operational innovations happening in the built environment right now. Living buildings are net positive energy and water. Some project components are focused on creating a natural closed loop lifecycle with cradle-to-cradle programs.

Innovations like these are critical to creating a future that doesn’t contribute to global warming in the long-term, and it will take more to hit the new 1.5 degree goal. Here are a few strategies that can have an immediate impact:

  • Reduce Embodied Energy of building materials: One large, centralized area where buildings contribute significant carbon and greenhouse emissions is in the manufacturing and transportation of building products. Solutions include targeting dramatic emission reductions at the largest product manufacturing plants, emphasizing extreme regional sourcing, and transport by rail or electric vehicles. The Tower at PNC Plaza was built using only local steel, which dramatically reduced carbon impact.
  • “The Greenest Building is the One Already Built.” –Carl Elefante: The recently released “The Total Carbon Study” reported nearly 70% of existing building retrofit projects avoided embodied carbon emissions associated with building material supply chain by reusing existing building infrastructure when compared to new construction. Lloyd Alter, design editor of TreeHugger,  also quotes data and results from a Preservation Green Lab report, “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction.”  The National Geographic Society Headquarters Complex in Washington DC upgraded its infrastructure to dramatically improve efficiency of existing buildings.
  • Building Industry Policy: There are many policy discussions related to the building industry at COP21. One important policy theme is an increased carbon and energy tax, which would require building owners, developers, and tenants to place higher priority on low-carbon and energy use buildings and increase investment into reducing carbon emissions. Using building automation systems (BAS) and data to track efficiency of existing buildings can produce immediate benefits. Seattle Pacific University used data to uncover easily fixed building system programming errors, resulting in an immediate reduction in energy consumption and lowering the carbon footprint.
  • Renewable Energy: Renewables and clean energy are dominating discussions in Paris, and rightfully so. The building industry plays a key role in supporting distributed renewable generation. PNC’s Net Zero Energy Bank Branch in Ft. Lauderdale is a prime example of a facility that achieved net zero energy by harnessing power from 211 of the most efficient photovoltaic panels on the commercial market.

When rebuilding, relocating, or even protecting communities impacted by rising sea levels, drought, fire, or flooding, our industry has the opportunity create inventive and adaptive solutions. We must prioritize resiliency and acknowledge that these rebuilding projects are establishing a new normal – one that prioritizes low-carbon production, net positive energy use, and supports flexibility and changes in the surrounding community and environment.

This is a large weight to bear and it is exactly this type of challenge and opportunity that keeps us progressing and transforming our built environment positively.


Nash Emrich is a technical consultant at Paladino and Company.

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