Carbon Emissions Are Up, But We Can Get Back on Track

In a year of devastating disasters, greenhouse gas emissions rose. Here’s what we can do about it.

By James S. Russell

James S. Russell portrait

James Russell, FAIA

Photo: Michael Mahoney/Hat Head Studios
We’ve just ended a year of fires that killed 85 in California, nearly destroying the town of Paradise, and hurricanes that took 53 lives in Florida and 43 in the Carolinas, leaving thousands of destroyed homes and billions of dollars of damage in their wake. The connection of these and other storms and droughts to climate change is unmistakable, but a new report says the U.S. actually increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 3.4% in 2018 after several years of modest declines.

These events underline the urgency of ramping up GHG reduction strategies since, as the report makes clear, reaching emission goals set by the Paris agreement (a 26% to 28% cut below 2005 levels by 2025) is now more difficult.

But not impossible.

Building professionals should not be shy about using their expertise to identify carbon-reduction opportunities at every stage—from the real-estate pro forma and the building program, to design and construction. Involving owners and users in commissioning and operating the facility helps carbon-reduction tactics perform optimally.

The Rhodium Report, an annual assessment prepared by the research firm based in New York, places buildings among the “forgotten sectors” (along with industry), “often ignored in clean energy and climate policymaking.” Emissions from natural gas, fuel oil, and diesel, burned for space heating and hot-water production, rose by 10% in 2018, to their highest level since 2004.

It’s not just the cold winter

The report attributes the rise in building emissions in part to an unusually cold winter but says low fuel prices and a growing economy likely played a role. Buildings are one of four sectors the report covers. Transportation emissions rose by 18 million metric tons. Industrial emissions grew by 55 million metric tons (some of which is attributable to structures), slightly greater than the growth in emissions by buildings, at 54 million metric tons.

The power sector’s emissions increased by 34 million metric tons, a reversal of a years-long trend. Emissions dropped by an impressive 78 million metric tons in 2017 thanks largely to coal power plant closings. The closings continued in 2018, but new gas generation more than replaced the coal decline. Buildings are implicated in the power sector because they consume electricity used for cooling, lighting, and equipment.

Buildings can do their part

Building-level opportunities are certainly legion, especially in energy conservation. Improved insulation, better windows, better lighting, and improved heating and cooling equipment long have been doing the decarbonization heavy lifting—roughly double the contribution of renewables in my experience. Unfortunately, the political class continues to see solutions only in solar and wind.

We now know how to build net-zero-energy buildings and deep-energy retrofits, but these remain exceedingly rare. The barriers to mainstreaming dramatic improvements in building-energy performance seem much lower than trying to replace fossil-fuel generation with renewables alone. Building professionals have a role to play in helping people see how far the state of the art has come through combining efficiency with renewables.

Emphasize multiple benefits

Efficiency can’t reach its full potential without incentives to reduce up-front costs (which are real for projects targeting more than modest energy reductions) and cover the hassles of retrofits, even when paybacks are short. America’s pitifully small energy-research effort must be ramped up. The work is primarily in mainstreaming proven strategies rather than inventing entirely new technologies. Efficiency wins not just in GHG-reduction terms but also in numerous additional benefits. We should miss no opportunity to document these for clients, and to promote them to communities and government officials.

Insulation and high-performance windows pay back not just with lower energy bills, for example, but with increased comfort. Energy upgrades can make properties more appealing to rent or own by providing low, predictable operating costs. Daylighting and natural ventilation improve well-being and resale. Solar, solar thermal, and high levels of insulation can aid “passive survivability” in an extended grid outage, keeping police stations usable in an emergency, and allowing libraries and schools to act as places of disaster refuge long after generators have run out of fuel.

Sensors and controls are becoming more sophisticated and easier to use, allowing more buildings to optimize fluctuating grid demand and intermittent power from renewables to shift energy-intensive tasks to times when solar is ample or grid power would otherwise be wasted.

Professionals also have a role to play in advocating for the most effective incentives to move energy efficiency into buildings more quickly. Policymakers tend to turn to regulation. Professionals may see greater advantage in the much-discussed cap-and-trade regime. It uses carbon emission-pricing that can quickly respond to rapid and unexpected developments that have demonstrable benefits. Regulators tend to be slower in keeping up with innovation, and frequently miss the benefits that can be derived when tactics work together. A highly insulated building with high-performance windows and lighting can often reduce outlays for mechanical systems and ductwork, for example.  Solar has gained in value as the rapid and unpredicted decline in the cost of batteries has made intermittent sunlight less of a problem. To make a cap-and-trade system more palatable to taxpayers, I would plow the proceeds into subsidizing retrofits for small businesses and for people whose incomes are too modest to afford capital-intensive projects no matter how appealing the payback.

The case for green jobs is stronger than ever

For too many people, climate change remains an abstraction and meeting its challenges too daunting. Professionals can help people understand the economic advantages of green investments, which makes the necessary commitments palatable to a larger public.

The economic case for efficiency is stronger than that for renewables since a wide range of tactics and technologies are involved, which means there’s no need to put all the government incentives in one basket (as the Obama Administration fatally did with solar). Reducing GHGs in buildings can involve lighting, insulation, controls, mechanical systems, windows, and wall systems. Ceiling systems, carpets, walls, and floors can all be manufactured with techniques that lower both toxicity and energy intensity.

Green economy jobs can be created in product design, engineering, manufacturing, and installing—the last critical because it cannot be exported—across an enormous number of disciplines.

It’s not yet too late for the U.S., in part because the potential market here is so large, and because the range of our climates is so great. That last is important because of the opportunity to create products that serve specific regions—all of which correspond to huge export markets. Ground-source heat pump systems are especially beneficial in the eastern third of the country, where summer humidity must be controlled. In the dry West, shading, “solar chimneys,” and other techniques take advantage of wide swings in temperature throughout the day and night.

The green-job case must be compellingly made to counter the fraudulent economic-enhancement claims made for coal and greater oil and gas extraction. In any fair comparison, green jobs would come out ahead as more valuable to the economy and to communities. For all the current bad news, the continued decline of carbon intensity throughout the U.S. economy demonstrates year after year the economic value of efficiency and renewable-energy investments.

Recurring severe weather and heat waves (and the higher air-conditioning bills they induce) appear to be convincing more Americans to see climate-change threats as urgent. Building professionals can lead in transferring that urgency to action.


James S. Russell, FAIA, is a journalist and consultant who frequently focuses on climate change strategies in buildings and cities. His book, The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, was published by Island Press.

Published February 4, 2019

(2019, February 4). Carbon Emissions Are Up, But We Can Get Back on Track . Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/carbon-emissions-are-we-can-get-back-track

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February 22, 2019 - 9:58 am

Thank you for offering a forward-looking and task-oriented article in an era when it is easy to slide into pessimism. As an alternate proposal to a carbon-cap-and-trade program I would encourage everyone to review the dividend program being proposed by the Citizens Climate Lobby. The power of the proposal is that by taxing carbon at the source, no one can dodge the financial burden of their own carbon footprint. Simultaneously, every individual in our society receives a cash return to help offset the burden of shifting our economy to a carbon-neutral future. In practice, those with the fewest resources by necessity have the lowest carbon footprint, and those who have carefully culled carbon from their lifestyle, will benefit most from the dividend boost. I encourage everyone to  review more details at https://citizensclimatelobby.org/energy-innovation-and-carbon-dividend-act/ and to contact your representatives at every level of government to let them know that you're concerned about climate change, and expect them to take action on it!