Decarbonization is commonly defined as the state where the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount taken out. The term is significant, particularly for carbon-dioxide emissions, because it describes the state at which global warming stops.
While many equate climate change with rising temperatures, the story is much more complex. Because our world is an interconnected series of systems, changes in one area have reverberating effects elsewhere. The consequences of climate change can now be seen around the globe in the form of intense droughts, rampant wildfires, flooding, rising sea levels, severe storms, melting polar ice caps and a negative impact on biological eco systems.
The very nature of this crisis demands action by us all, but particularly those in the building industry which, by some measures, accounts for almost 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions. For building owners, operators, contractors and real estate professionals, this is the time to live the phrase “think globally, act locally.”
Climate change and economic risk to middle America
The central United States is the “heart” of the country in many ways. The Midwest is the nation’s center for commodity agriculture, industrial manufacturing and shipping/transportation logistics. It is also home to more than 61 million people who primarily reside in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and more. Geographically, the region is home to sprawling woodlands, lakes, rivers and countless tributaries. In short, the Heartland of America is one of our most economically productive regions. It is also one of our nation’s most at-risk areas threatened by unchecked climate change.
Unless immediate action is taken, greenhouse gas emissions will likely result in higher temperatures that impact the Midwest’s 10 major metropolitan areas in a number of ways, including:
- Increased energy demand and costs
- Higher heat-related deaths
- Decreased productivity in business
- Climate uncertainty, which will impact farming seasons
The region’s thriving agriculture would also be expected to suffer yield losses and economic damages as temperatures rise. Other impacts are noted in the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) summary, “How Will Climate Change Affect the Midwest?”
The built environment: Part of the problem/part of the solution
As previously noted, the construction and operation of buildings is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is there are many technical solutions available to help decarbonize this sector. The bad news is significant barriers persist that make investing and financing these efforts difficult.
The World Economic Forum is addressing this challenge by helping the financial services industry redefine how the value of such investments are perceived and defined. The Net Zero Carbon Cities program was launched to consider the social, environmental and system performance outcomes of improved buildings, in addition to traditional financial measures.
Defining standards and goals
Commercial real estate developers are working with local governments to set these sustainability and net zero targets. However, the continued lack of consensus on exactly what “net zero” means makes this type of planning a challenge.
Progress is being made by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in defining the world’s first consensus-based net zero guiding principles and the benchmark for the climate agenda. The organization recently announced the launch of the International Workshop Agreement (IWA) to help accelerate the development of net-zero guiding principles. The initiative hopes to solve a tricky conundrum: How do you translate the science-based concept of net zero into specific, actionable, rules and guidelines?
Until a consensus is adopted, companies and developers can follow guidelines suggested by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The SBTi is described by the organization as “the gold standard for net-zero target setting, which is vital in enabling companies to identify and reduce their emissions and limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.” That is the limit most scientists agree must be achieved by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
SBTi released its 2021 Progress Report that indicates the initiative doubled the number of new companies setting and committing to net zero targets. The report also showed a tripling of the rate at which these targets were validated. The organization reports more than 2,200 companies representing more than one-third of the global economy’s market capitalization were working with SBTi in establishing net zero emissions goals.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also recently issued a special report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. The news there is a bit more dire. According to the report, “unless there are immediate and deep greenhouse gas emission reductions across all sectors, 1.5°C is beyond reach.” The report outlines how emissions can be reduced by half in key sectors and outlines how humanity can improve their chances for success.
It is clear, the need for universal guidelines is pressing. According to analysis by the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), while some producers of greenhouse gases have committed to clearly defined and binding net zero plans, others may be gaming the system. Without clear, agreed-upon standards and processes, some entities may make vacuous promises. For example, not making changes in the near term but setting future goals based on the assumption that new carbon capture technologies will become available down the road.
Midwest cities take action
In its first major revision since 1949, the Chicago City Council approved an update to the city’s building code in 2019. New regulations streamline cost-effective construction and expands the number of options for designs and building materials. The new code also promotes greater use of green technologies and best practices for sustainable building design and construction.
More recently, the Chicago Building Code was further revised to update energy efficiency and sustainable design requirements to align with requirements adopted by the state and established by the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
The city has also published a Chicago Sustainable Development Policy Handbook to help guide development projects to adopt sustainable strategies.
In Denver, the Mile-High City is living up to its nickname by setting high standards for achieving sustainability. Denver is seeking to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050. To hit that goal, the city must find ways to eliminate 100 million tons of carbon emissions each year. Under recent building code regulations, facility owners are required to either cover 70% of their roofs with solar panels or source renewable electricity off-site if the building location does not adequately support solar power.
In addition to new guidelines, Denver is encouraging building owners to go above and beyond the minimum requirements. The city launched the Denver Green Code in November 2019—a voluntary set of guidelines for pilot projects that is based on the International Green Construction Code and is 10% better than existing city codes. Developers can benefit in different ways when they adopt the Denver Green Code. These advantages include expedited permitting of projects. This initiative offers compliance options for LEED Platinum and net zero building certifications.
Industry professionals act locally
Waiting for sustainability requirements to be defined is not an option. There are meaningful actions businesses can take to create net zero plans in the interim:
- Tackle energy reduction (i.e., operational carbon) first, before investing in offsets.
- Address embodied carbon when constructing new real estate.
- Review opportunities to electrify (i.e., decarbonize) equipment when performing end-of-life system replacements.
- Capitalize on existing local utility incentives and federal tax programs to help fund initiatives.
As organizations move forward with net-zero and decarbonization plans, and adjust them as future regulation comes about, I recommend initially tying targets to the Paris Agreement as this will likely be the sticking point for all climate change initiates and directives to come.
With major cities like Chicago setting the pace, the rest of the nation seems to be joining the effort for a cleaner, more efficient built environment. For these net zero efforts to be successful, it will require the cooperation of building owners, operators, and occupants to work together to meet these challenges while the engineering design and construction industries continue to push for a greener future.
Saagar Patel is the Operations Director for ESD, a global engineering firm specializing in mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, life safety, structural and technology engineering. He leads ESD’s Sustainability and Healthy Buildings group. Patel is actively involved in ASHRAE and BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) and serves on the Building Decarbonization Working Group for the City of Chicago and the Illinois Energy Code Advisory Council.