Buildings in the United States – homes, offices, and industrial facilities – account for over 40 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Most of these emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide heating, cooling, and lighting and to run electrical equipment and appliances. The manufacture of building materials and products, and the increased emissions from the transportation generated by urban sprawl, also contribute a significant amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions every year. In this report, authors Marilyn Brown, Frank Southworth, and Theresa Stovall identify numerous opportunities available now, and in the future, to reduce the building sector’s overall impact on climate.
This Pew Center report is part of our effort to examine key sectors, technologies, and policy options to construct the “10-50 Solution” to climate change. The idea is that we need to tackle climate change over the next fifty years, one decade at a time. Looking at options for the near (10 years) and long (50 years) term, this report yields the following insights for reducing GHG emissions from the largest portion of our nation’s physical wealth – our built environment.
- This sector presents tremendous challenges. There are so many different energy end uses and GHG-relevant features, multiple stakeholders and decision-makers, and numerous market barriers to energy efficiency.
- Yet numerous opportunities exist. In the near term, simply bringing current building practices up to the level of best practices would yield tremendous energy and cost savings. Past studies have shown that many climate-friendly and cost-effective measures in the buildings sector are not fully utilized in the absence of policy intervention. The R&D and six deployment policies examined in this report could reduce forecasted energy consumption and carbon emissions of buildings in the United States in 2025 by almost one-quarter, or by an amount roughly equal to 10% of total projected U.S. carbon emissions. In 2025 and beyond, newly constructed net-zero-energy homes and climate-friendly designs for large commercial buildings and industrial facilities could begin to generate sizeable GHG reductions by displacing the energy-intensive structures that embody today’s standard practices.
- An integrated approach is needed to reduce GHG emissions from the diverse and fragmented building sector. Such an approach coordinates across technical and policy solutions, integrates engineering approaches with architectural design, considers design decisions within the realities of building operation, integrates green building with smart-growth concepts, and takes into account the numerous decision-makers within the industry.
- An expansive view of the building sector is needed to completely identify and capitalize on the full range of GHG-reduction opportunities. Such a view needs to consider future building construction (including life-cycle aspects of buildings materials, design, and demolition), use (including on-site power generation and its interface with the electric grid), and location (in terms of urban densities and access to employment and services).
The authors and the Pew Center would like to thank Robert Broad of Pulte Home Sciences, Leon Clarke of the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Jean Lupinacci of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Steven Nadel of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy for their review of and advice on a previous draft of this report, and Tony Schaffhaeuser for contributions to an early version this paper.