Could coronavirus be a wake up call for climate action?

We are living through an unprecedented global health crisis that has upended our daily routines and halted the economy in a matter of weeks. Rebounding from the loss of lives and the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus across the globe will be the biggest challenge in generations. Yet, research shows that extreme levels of atmospheric carbon may pose a parallel and ongoing health threat like COVID-19 that would play out over decades if unaddressed.

As with COVID-19, all populations will be affected by climate change, but some are more vulnerable than others. Climate change and local air pollution disproportionately impacts disadvantaged and hard-to-reach communities, and we’re seeing similar trends with this disease. An April 2020 study by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health links air pollution to higher rates of death from the disease. Much of this has to do with unequal exposure to particulate matter from pollution and inadequate health care.

With buildings accounting for 39% of carbon emissions in the United States, it’s clear that renovating and decarbonizing the nation’s building stock is vital to reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are fueling a warming planet. Such measures not only curb GHG emissions but lead to a decrease in ground-level ozone (a key component of smog) and indoor air pollution, which can cause a wide range of negative health impacts such as more frequent asthma attacks and weakened lungs that are more susceptible to asthma. These impacts appear to also exacerbate the impact of COVID-19, making it deadlier.

The building industry is already answering this call to action in cities and states across the country, where bold policies unrelated to stay-at-home orders are driving down carbon emissions over the long term while also promoting economic development and jobs. At this pivotal point in history, our industry has a critical role to play to ensure the stimulus packages and policies that emerge during this time support job creation and energy affordability for low-income communities, while also setting us on a path to a low-carbon and clean energy future.

Responding with a Green New Deal

Overcoming the economic fallout caused by COVID-19 requires an ambitious approach, similar to the successful programs enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1939 to provide relief and recovery from the Great Depression. At that time both the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) emerged as providers of employment opportunities for workers most in need and with a similar mission to our call to build back better.

Today, we have an opportunity to develop similar programs—a combination of education, workforce training, and employment—that can help people get back on their feet while also mitigating the risks of climate change. In fact, in some parts of the country, such programs are being developed that exemplify this vision. The Portland (Oregon) Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, created by a local ballot measure, is anticipated to bring $44 – $61 million in new revenue for clean energy projects, including renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, and clean energy jobs training. Just in the last few weeks, the city of Burlington, VT, which owns its own municipal utility, announced the creation of a “green stimulus package” that increases funding for weatherization programs for low- and middle-income rental housing, boosts cold-climate heat pump incentives and expands electric vehicle incentives.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal for New York, passed in January 2019, mandates a transition to 100% clean power by 2040. A new 22-member Climate Action Council tasked with creating a Scoping Plan to achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda met for the first time in March, via video conference. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s L.A.’s Green New Deal lays out a plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 through a wide range of strategies. In February, Mayor Garcetti put forth another model for other cities to consider by signing an Executive Directive that calls for carbon reductions in the electricity grid and transportation sector, as well as investigating options for low- and zero-carbon based renewable energy investment. The order also requires equitable access to clean power for low-income, multifamily and affordable housing.

A national Green New Deal could lead to retrofitting our aging buildings— including schools, public housing and public buildings—and ensuring all new construction is designed to meet carbon neutral goals. In doing so, we could reduce energy costs for taxpayers while reducing carbon emissions and asthma-inducing industrial pollution and creating new clean energy jobs.

Recovering with carbon-free buildings

Over the last two months, thousands of companies have retooled their business models to respond to the current pandemic—shifting from distilling whiskey to manufacturing hand sanitizer, from producing textiles to manufacturing medical gowns, and more. In doing so, these business leaders have preserved jobs, generated revenue and filled an urgent need. Responding to the climate crisis will require a similar retooling of our economy, but we’ve shown we can do it. In the building industry, organizations such as Natural Resources Defense Council, New Buildings Institute, the U.S. Green Building Council, ASHRAE, AIA, and others are already working together to support the transition to decarbonized buildings.

It’s become more apparent than ever that leadership matters. With clear scientific evidence, some governments acted swiftly and invested strong policy efforts and public funding in order to stem the progression of the virus, effectively flattening the curve and leading to declines in deaths and infections. Similar bold action and investment in climate action could not only flatten the curve of global GHG emissions but bend it to zero and mitigate the worse effects of the climate crisis. In early May, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment published a report outlining the stimulus policies that are perceived to deliver large economic multipliers and drive emissions trajectory towards net zero.

Just as local governments have shown leadership around the pandemic response, so have local leaders shown leadership in response to climate change. More than 400 Climate Mayors representing over 70 million Americans have adopted the goals of the Paris agreement for their cities, aiming to reduce GHG emissions by at least 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. And 25 governors have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition committed to the same goal. In early May 2020, 37 mayors from many of the world’s most powerful cities representing millions of people signed a pledge “to build a better, more sustainable and fairer society out of the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.” NBI is supporting dozens of cities and states through the development of building codes and policies, making the transition to zero energy and zero carbon buildings, and improving building performance.

We’re also working with our partners in New York to plan the 2021 Getting to Zero Forum, scheduled for March 15-17, 2021. The event aims to educate and inspire those working to bring about this transformative change in the building industry. While it is too soon to know whether we’ll be gathering in person or virtually, we are moving ahead with our planning efforts.

As we better understand the parallels between our response to COVID-19 and climate action, this is no time to be complacent. It’s time to think big, and it’s time to be bold. The environment, human lives and the economy depend on it.

COVID 19 resources relevant to buildings


by Ralph DiNola, CEO at New Buildings Institute, and David Goldstein, NBI Board Chair

Top photo: Melting glacier in Alaska | Credit: Riley Harris