Reduce Carbon in Existing Buildings and Put America Back to Work

We all know too well of the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These impacts are compounded by increasingly destructive wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding – so much so that nearly two-thirds of Americans – including more than half of Republicans and 83% of Democrats – feel the federal government should act more aggressively to address climate change, according to a June 2020 poll by Pew Research Center.

Now, there is an opportunity to address both the economic and climate challenges we face with stimulus plans that jumpstart the post-COVID economy. These investments would transition the built environment to a clean energy, low-carbon future and promote healthier work and living spaces. Those working or studying from home, have likely become tuned-in to the ways in which things like temperature control, fresh air, and daylighting impact daily moods and productivity. Research from Harvard University finds that well-ventilated, high-performance buildings improve our mental and physical health. It also happens that high performance buildings also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower utility bills, reduce maintenance costs, and improve indoor air quality.

One of the presidential candidates, Joe Biden calls for a $2 trillion investment in updating the built environment and creating new jobs to do it. While the buildings portion of that proposal falls short of what is required to achieve a carbon neutral building sector by 2050, it provides an excellent foundation by calling for building performance standards (BPS) for existing buildings nationwide and lending financial support to states, cities, and tribes in their efforts to develop and enforce them. As the two earlier blogs in this series detailed, these building performance standards that set targets for how buildings perform are one of the best tools we have for achieving deep energy savings and emissions reductions in existing buildings. They can be written to optimize the energy use in older buildings, as well as protect and conserve water, enhance indoor air quality, reduce waste and air pollution, and create jobs.

BPS is a relatively new policy approach, and as such requires policymakers to do their research before moving forward. In our first blog in this series, we provided an overview about why it’s so critical to focus on reducing the carbon footprint of existing buildings. In the second blog, we provided clarity about the terminology and mechanisms used in BPS policy. In this third and final blog, we are sharing some of the ways in which BPS can be leveraged to improve public health outcomes, increase resilience, create jobs and strengthen the economy.

Today, three cities (Washington, D.C., New York City and St. Louis) and one state (Washington) have enacted BPS. Yet a growing number of cities and states are considering BPS policies as a way to meet climate, equality, public health and financial goals, according to the 2019 ACEEE State Energy Efficiency Scorecard. Below are some of the approaches and considerations for other states and jurisdictions eyeing this policy.

How can policymakers incorporate public health, as well as environmental, benefits into policy?

The early adopters of BPS legislation focused primarily on reducing energy and carbon emissions from buildings. Yet many BPS policies currently under consideration are including measures that are known to also improve the health and safety of residents.

Recent research shows that converting equipment and appliances from gas combustion to electricity delivers healthier air both inside and outside buildings by reducing the release of toxic particulates and gases. Building electrification is one policy objective that can be incorporated into BPS to address the health risks associated with combustion from gas stoves and appliances.

Considerations when developing BPS:

  • Carefully consider the health issues facing people in our community (e.g. high rates of asthma and/or obesity). If there is a sustainability plan, these issues are likely already defined there.
  • Include measures that are known to improve health outcomes (e.g. prohibit appliances that burn natural gas indoors and create more green space such as rooftop gardens).

How can resilience benefits be incorporated into policy?

The impacts of climate change are being felt by millions of people in cities and states around the nation. Sea level rise, drought, increased wildfires, extreme heat, more severe hurricanes, increasing floods and tornadoes, and landslides cause illness, injuries and even death as well as job loss and vast economic impacts. BPS legislation can include resilience metrics as a way to better prepare communities for future natural disasters.

Considerations when developing BPS:

  • Consider the community’s highest risks and incorporate specific measures that help make buildings more resilient during natural disasters or power outage/emergency power shutoff (e.g. mandate structural retrofits in earthquake-prone areas).
  • Set resilience metrics based on a building’s ability to assist the community during and after a significant event (e.g. incentivize a building for its ability to serve as a community shelter powered by onsite renewable energy and storage).

For more ideas about how to incorporate equitable community resilience metrics into your plans and policies, check out Making Equity Real in Climate Adaptation and Community Resilience Policies and Programs: A Guidebook by the Greenlining Institute.

How to engage communities to ensure local residents have access to new jobs and other economic benefits?

Since BPS requires building upgrades, by definition it will expand local economic activity and trade jobs. These jobs open opportunities for people to learn new skills and grow living wage jobs. Taking proactive steps and engaging with disadvantaged communities helps ensure everyone in the jurisdiction has equal access to the workforce development and growth benefits from BPS legislation.

Considerations when developing BPS:

  • Identify and partner with local and national individuals and organizations who are experienced with engaging vulnerable populations in shaping government priorities and plans.
  • Focus on communication where citizen input influences policy decisions.
  • Focus on strategies that aim to alleviate contributing causes of social vulnerabilities that result from climate change.
  • Focus on providing incentives that promote the hiring of companies that pay a living wage and/or hiring women and minority-owned businesses.
  • Survey local service firms to determine their capacity to serve the market should hundreds or thousands of buildings become required to improve their performance.
  • Survey local service firms, trade associations, and schools to determine what training and continuing education are available. Ask them what needs to be developed in order to support workers and ensure best practices are used when installing new high-efficiency equipment and systems.

For more ideas about how to design and implement a more inclusive, equitable planning process, check out the Guide to Equitable, Community-Driven Climate Preparedness Planning published by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

What comes next?

Earlier this year, Arundthati Roy eloquently wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Today, local leaders are poised to emerge from the post-pandemic “portal” with multiple advantages over other communities, ranging from economic to public health to quality of life. Healthier, higher-performing post-pandemic buildings can be one of those advantages, helping ensure tangible and meaningful benefits for owners, tenants, workers, and communities across America. Establishing building performance standards across our country is a sure way to help get us there.

by Kim Cheslak, Director of Codes