Archive for December, 2010

December 9, 2010

Four 2010 Game Changers…That Didn’t

2010 held tremendous potential to be a game-changing year for sustainability. Global and local government action and economic and environmental events could have tipped the scales for or against sustainable progress…but most actions ended up as a lot of hot air.  These are our top picks for the game changers that didn’t live up to their hype in 2010 — but we want to hear from you too.  Feel free to comment and tell us your would-be signal moments for sustainability in 2010, and what you hope will change the conversation in 2011.

1.  Global Action on Climate Change

Josh Hatch, Climate Services Group Director


Copenhagen Climate Summit

The U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, Image courtesy of

A packed US legislative calendar and worldwide recession crowded out substantive action on climate action at the national and international levels. In the US, Congress was consumed by health care, unemployment, and bickering over the government taxing and spending priorities in the context of a rising deficit and lagging economy. Even though the House was able to pass the Waxman-Markey bill, the stalemate in the Senate prevented ultimate passage.

Internationally, progress on the global problem of climate change stumbled at Copenhagen. The result was the non-legally binding Copenhagen Accord — an accord that does not set either mandatory reduction targets or establish a successor to the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. Perhaps the final stumbling block to national progress in 2010 was the sale and closure of the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary emission trading market widely anticipated to be the predecessor to a US Cap and Trade program.

Despite top-down failures to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases, progress was seen in developing regional trading markets to control carbon emissions (i.e. Western Climate Initiative, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative). Voters in California also upheld California’s Global Warming Solutions Act in this fall’s election, demonstrating that people do want the government to regulate carbon emissions. Progress was also seen with specific corporations that are considering carbon emission impact in decision-making, investigating risk regarding a potential future carbon tax, and discovering valuable bottom-line cost savings by reducing carbon emissions and energy use. At least in the next few years, it is clear that even without national leadership or mandate, progress in dealing with climate change is being led by the private sector and regional public sector initiatives.

2. A Democratic Congress and White House

Heath Blount, Sustainability Advisor

The 2008 election of a democratic House, Senate and White House was supposed to be a key turning point for the environmental movement, and by extension a key turning point for anyone concerned with preserving the current state of the planet.  In other words, everyone.  Some early progress like increased efficiency standards for cars and the EPA decision that greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health may have led environmental groups to grow hopeful that they could relax – the government was doing right by the environment for a change.  When progress started to slow in 2010, environmental groups that did push hard for issues like climate change were criticized by the White House for not doing enough to change the voting blocks in congress.  It is clearly a lack of political backbone on the part of Democratic operatives, and not the environmental lobby, that was responsible for capitulating on Energy and Climate Change legislation – no absence of a 60 vote majority ever stopped Republicans from passing three major tax cuts.

AB 32, Proposition 23, and CalGreen

Fortunately for California, recent battles in regulations and statewide propositions for climate change have been more successful.  Proposition 23 challenged AB 32, new California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, in this fall’s midterm election.  The proposition asked the voters of California if they wanted to stall climate change legislation until unemployment reached impossibly low levels.  This economy vs. environment argument is common, although increasingly debunked – including this report highlighting the economic benefits of the Clean Air Act. The coalition that supported AB 32 avoided the typical business vs. environment, Republican vs. Democratic, and conservative vs. liberal clichés.  Proposition 23’s defeat occurred through the efforts of a broad coalition of traditional environmental groups, clean-tech investors and entrepreneurs, small businesses, local community leaders and students, and public health advocates (such as the American Lung Association), who all saw the positive potential of the new law.  Unlikely partnerships like these led to the protection of what is now America’s most stringent law on climate change, as well as the nation’s first mandatory statewide green building code, CALGREEN.

3.  The BP Oil Spill — A wasted opportunity to promote change

Billy Ulmer, Marketing Coordinator

Gulf Coast Oil Worker and Bird

People meeting planet on the gulf coast, photo courtesy of The Epoch Times

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the U.S. coast in the Gulf of Mexico dominated national media for much of the summer.  Outrage over the spill and heartbreaking images of how it impacted the local economy seemed poised to galvanize lawmakers and the public.  The result was a strong movement to enact and demand more protection for the safety of humans and wildlife, and put the complex relationships between man and nature on full display.   Darkly illustrated by the BP spill, the economy and culture of the gulf coast relies on the natural world, whether they’re mining it, fishing it, or helping tourists experience its beauty.

Unlike with many smaller events, the window for taking advantage of the public outcry  – the media spotlight — over the BP spill was months long.  The spill began in April; the leaking well was officially sealed on September 19th.  But by September, public interest and legislative momentum had waned significantly as the national agenda shifted from the Gulf’s environmental disaster to the nation’s economy and unemployment.  Environmental advocates rarely quote Machiavelli, but maybe they should: “Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis,” he counseled.  The BP oil spill could be the wasted crisis of the year.

4.  A Down Economy (that still couldn’t kill sustainability’s momentum)

Jared Kennedy, Director of Operations

The concept that sustainability is just a fad took a hard hit this past year. A common excuse for delaying legislation to address climate change is that it will have a negative impact on the economy. The past year was the year that put that claim to the test, and the results were to the contrary. In 2010, the total square footage of buildings following green building guidelines reached its highest total yet, even as investment dollars shifted from new construction to the vast existing buildings market.

In addition, voters in California opted to move forward with aggressive legislation requiring corporations and buildings to limit carbon emissions and cap carbon emissions at the state level. The ballot initiative aiming to delay the legislation until unemployment hit all-time lows in the state was widely rejected in November voting.  In another interesting development, a variety of large growth organizations publicly admonished the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for their attack on climate legislation during the heart of the recession.  Businesses and the public who consume their goods and services are still speaking out and acting for sustainability, proving that sustainability isn’t a fringe benefit to be sacrificed during hard times.

December 1, 2010

Are Green Buildings Keeping Pace with Climate Protection Targets?

Josh Hatch, Climate Services Group Director, Brightworksby Josh Hatch

Climate Services Group Director

In the past few years there has been a growing focus on understanding and reducing the carbon footprint of new and existing buildings. Trade publications, news articles, and corporate press releases are full of claims of massive reductions. Design firms advertise their net-zero projects, solar arrays, and advanced control systems that aim to minimize the carbon footprint of building operation. But how representative are these claims, and how does actual progress compare with the magnitude of the climate change problem? As a national leader in green building and sustainability, the City of Portland, Oregon offers new data that may shed light on where the rest of the country is headed, and whether enough progress is being made.

Over the past three years, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Portland Design Awards Competition has required that projects submit carbon calculations along with their application. The calculations are made by inputting forecast or actual energy usage information into a standardized carbon-calculation tool.  The tool determines the building’s carbon performance in comparison with both the national average for buildings of the same size and type, and in comparison with the carbon reduction target required for stabilizing the atmosphere concentration of carbon dioxide (as established by the 2030 Challenge Reduction Targets). This collected data provides a rare glimpse into the carbon performance of newly designed or renovated facilities.

The national average information for a building’s energy performance is taken from the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) database and converted to carbon impact. It is important to note that current building code requirements translate into a requirement that new designs demonstrate a roughly 25% improvement over the national average. The average project submitted to the competition in 2010 was 46% better than the national average, up from 33% in 2009, and up from 36% in 2008. Of the approximately 75 projects submitted each year to the design awards competition, in 2010, 28 projects demonstrated a 50% or greater improvement above the national average.  In 2009, that number was 19, and in 2008, it was only 11. Performance of at least 50% better than national average is relevant since the 2030 Challenge Target for climate stabilization was 50% prior to 2010. In 2010, the target for the next five years increased to 60%. In 2010, 16 of the submitted projects already met this higher threshold. These statistics were calculated by the Carbon Analysis Committee for the AIA Portland Design Awards Competition—a committee that I chair.

AIA Portland Design Awards Applicants greenhouse gas emissions

AIA Portland Design Awards Greenhouse Gas Data. Click to view full size.


This positive trend is encouraging, since it demonstrates that even in a relatively short 3-year period, the projects submitted for the AIA Portland Design Awards are showing marked improvement in reducing carbon emissions. However, it also brings up two large concerns:  There is a lag even among projects submitted for the awards in achieving the 2030 Challenge Targets for climate stabilization.  Also, many projects are still being designed and built only to the minimum code requirements. Portland’s data shows that roughly one-third of all projects submitted performance data indicating that they were at or below a 25% improvement over the national average.  Basically, the buildings were built to minimum code requirements. On the other hand, three projects were submitted this year that were carbon-neutral, proving that high performance is possible with today’s technologies and still cost-effective enough to be built during a recession.

Another indication of progress appeared in the release of the first year Progress Report for the Climate Action Plan for the City of Portland and its local Multnomah County. This is a three-year plan to put Portland on a path to achieve a 40% reduction in carbon emissions citywide by 2030 and achieve an 80% reduction by 2050. The report finds that local emissions have already dropped 15% since the year 2000.  Since 1990, a baseline year referenced in the Kyoto Protocol, local emissions have dropped 2% overall—for comparison, during the same time period, emissions nationwide rose 9%.This demonstrates that real carbon emission reductions can be achieved, even with population growth.

These two insights provide valuable information about progress in carbon reductions in buildings and communities. Although there has been a media onslaught about high performance green buildings that claim substantial carbon reductions, one should be skeptical of the US building code baseline used to calculate those reductions. Current energy code nearly guarantees a 25% improvement beyond the national average building performance.  However, only a few buildings are truly striving for or achieving carbon neutrality. It is likely that, until high performance green building achievements are no longer news, we still have a long way to go.

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