Any successful climate protection strategy must consider the building sector, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. From houses and hotels to schools and skyscrapers, buildings in the United States use more than 40 percent of the country's energy for lighting, heating, cooling, and appliance operation and about 70 percent of the electricity produced. It is estimated that the manufacture, transport, and assembly of building materials such as wood, concrete, and steel account for another eight percent of energy use. About half of the electricity buildings use is generated from inefficient coal-burning power plants, which release greenhouse gases. It is easy to understand why some call buildings the single most important contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Improving building energy performance can be a major solution.

Despite remarkable improvements in the energy efficiency of individual components and appliances since the 1973 oil embargo, building energy consumption is increasing. New buildings are being constructed, a host of modern electronics and appliances are adding "plug load", and energy is simply wasted. New buildings typically are not designed to optimize energy performance, and most existing buildings have not been upgraded with even the most basic and affordable energy efficiency strategies. Home owners in general know little about how their homes use energy, and landlords usually shift the burden of higher energy costs to their tenants by raising rental prices.

Fortunately, savvy home owners and commercial building owners are beginning to understand that energy efficiency will save hundreds of thousands of dollars. And many building professionals know how to construct and renovate houses and other buildings to be energy efficient, green, high performance, renewable ready, and even completely independent of fossil fuels (often referred to as zero net energy buildings). A variety of products are available––super energy efficient, Energy Star® appliances and HVAC systems, CFLs and now LED lighting, insulation, high-performance windows, and more. Even biobased building materials are available to replace petroleum-based products. A variety of measures could be taken to ensure better buildings that are good for the economy––advanced building codes, voluntary standards to enhance building performance, home energy inspections, energy-efficient mortgages, financing tools, and more. States and cities are adopting green building rating systems or developing their own building policies to save energy and tackle climate change in the absence of major federal action.

With federal leadership, the building sector could play a dramatic role in stabilizing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the next generation of buildings could provide a wealth of collateral benefits such as improved affordability, health, safety, and resale value. As a complement to carbon pricing, policies that encourage or require buildings to be energy efficient and use renewable energy can reduce the building sector's demand for dirty energy and help the United States transition to a low carbon, clean energy economy that generates new businesses and jobs across the country.

 

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