Building standards and climate change

2009-02-03

in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, The environment

Ceiling fan

When it comes to planning, we really need to be thinking about the lifespan of what we are building, and the changes likely to occur during the course of it. For vehicles, that means thinking about efficiency standards and probable future developments in fuel types, prices, and availability. For buildings, it means thinking about efficiency and the payback time for different low-energy technologies. For all areas, it means thinking about what successful climate change mitigation and adaptation will involve.

New building construction is one of the areas where this can be most easily accomplished. Many different governments have levers through which they can influence private decisions. Governments build and renovate their own properties and, to a considerable extent, set the terms under which private actors do so. That power can be used to build a society that is both more economically and ecologically sustainable.

Federal, provincial, and municipal governments should be thinking about mechanisms like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards and the effect they can have on the economic and environmental sustainability of future built environments. In a climate like that of Canada, there are a huge number of situations in which high building efficiency standards are rapidly repaid in the form of decreased energy use. At the societal level, they are repaid even more richly, since the externalities associated with that energy production are also eliminated. Simple initiatives like painting roofs white can reduce the urban heat island effect and reduce energy use associated with cooling in summer: achieving mitigation and adaptation simultaneously.

On the adaptation side, planning is similarly crucial. While many of the downscaled effects of climate change remain uncertain, there are a few we can already be pretty clear about. We are, for instance, going to see smaller glaciers and less winter snowpack. That affects how cities should be doing their water planning. Smart governments should be thinking about how communities can be grouped, in terms of the probable climate impacts they will face. Along with the insurance industry, governments can then encourage cost-effective preemptive adaptation measures.

There are those who argue that taking these kinds of action is inappropriate or counterproductive: that governments should just introduce carbon pricing and let the market respond. There are several reasons for which that is not an appropriate attitude. For one thing, these kinds of standards help address other non-climatic externalities. For builders, there is an incentive to build shoddy, poorly insulated homes. The societal welfare arising from durable, well-insulated homes is significantly greater. Setting standards can help close the divide. Also, there is no real prospect of an appropriate carbon price emerging in the next few years. There is, by contrast, hope for one that will escalate to a sensible level. By starting to build today the kind of buildings that will be sensible in that environment, we can both get ahead in the process of building a low-carbon society and preemptively address accusations that carbon prices places an unacceptable burden on ordinary people.

The ongoing financial crisis, which is so deeply connected to building construction and financing, provides governments with even more levels through which to push sensible standards. Doing so judiciously is one way through which a victory can be gleaned out of this catastrophe.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. February 3, 2009 at 5:12 pm

The ongoing financial crisis, which is so deeply connected to building construction and financing, provides governments with even more levels through which to push sensible standards.

Would it be too extreme to mandate that all financial institutions receiving taxpayer support can only finance LEED Silver or better projects, from now on? Maybe it would be better to give them the alternative to pay a fine, as an alternative to complying with the mandate.

Milan February 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm

That general approach seems quite justified, though the details could differ somewhat. Ensuring that future construction is efficient is both financially and economically sensible. It could also help to create a lot of jobs.

Indeed, you can make the case that the government would do better to employ a few hundred thousand renovators as civil servants, rather than spend the same money bailing out private companies.

Antonia February 5, 2009 at 11:04 am

In the UK incentives so far to improve green construction standards have been feebly applied , confusing or directly undermined by other regulations, but this seems to be par for the course for the EU in general.
However, buildings energy certification is coming in, although slowed – it will even affect university funding shortly (a bit of a problem for Oxbridge given all the listed old buildings which present efficiency headaches).

. May 28, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Painting The World’s Roofs White Could Slow Climate Change

Hugh Pickens writes “Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel prize-winning physicist appointed by President Obama as Energy Secretary, wants to paint the world white. Chu said at the opening of the St James’s Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium that by lightening paved surfaces and roofs to the color of cement, it would be possible to cut carbon emissions by as much as taking all the world’s cars off the roads for 11 years. Pale surfaces reflect up to 80 percent of the sunlight that falls on them, compared with about 20 percent for dark ones, which is why roofs and walls in hot countries are often whitewashed.”

Milan October 9, 2009 at 11:09 am

“Okay, sure, ideally your entire roof would be comprised of solar tiles that would meet your entire house’s energy demands and would also water your lawn and clean your gutters while they were up there. But, despite pledges of “affordability” something tells us it’ll be awhile before your roof starts juicing your gadgets. This solution from MIT looks a little more practical — and affordable. They’re simply tiles that change color based on the temperature, Hypercolor style. In the cold they turn jet black, absorbing the sun’s warmth and channeling that into the house. In heat they turn white, reflecting that same light and cutting down on cooling bills. Simple and smart. The MIT team calls the tech Thermeleon, and while early prototypes do change color as designed, it remains to be seen how durable the tech will be, and a leaky roof is no good regardless of how efficient. Asphalt shingles reign supreme for yet another year”

. July 19, 2010 at 2:13 pm

“In theory, urban living can be greener than other ways of life: people need to travel shorter distances, for instance. The practice is not so simple. Most poor people coming to the city aspire to higher standards of living and consumption. Ill-planned public transport reinforces car use. Most striking, putting up and using buildings accounts for a big part of developing Asia’s carbon emissions—perhaps 30% in the case of China, where nearly half the world’s new floor space is built each year. What’s more, the buildings do not age well. Many thrown up in the 1990s are already being pulled down and replaced.

Governments acknowledge the challenge. Green codes in China mandate energy-saving standards for heating, cooling and lighting new buildings. The aim is to cut new buildings’ energy use by 65%. But many new buildings are designed first and greened later—a cheaper but less effective approach.

Yet in China the idea appears to have run into the sands because of the radical approach it requires. Developers are ill-versed in thinking about energy, water and sewage as a seamless whole. Utilities think like central planners. Government agencies struggle to operate beyond their traditional remits. What is more, the costs are up to a fifth higher for such developments, though they more than pay for themselves in the long run.

. July 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm

“When you’re thinking of putting on a new roof, make it white,” Dr. Chu told Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” audience in 2009. “It costs no more to make it white than to make it black.”

Now he is following his own advice: on Monday, Dr. Chu directed all Energy Department offices to install white roofs during new construction, when replacing old roofs and wherever an installation is cost-effective over the lifetime of the roof. The secretary urged other federal agencies to follow suit.

“Cool roofs are one of the quickest and lowest-cost ways we can reduce our global carbon emissions and begin the hard work of slowing climate change,” he said in a statement.

As climate change remedies go, whitening roofs is the proverbial low-hanging fruit, many studies show. As my colleague Felicity Barringer reported last year, lighter-colored roofs not only reduce air-conditioning bills for individual buildings but also lessen the “heat island” effect, in which the ambient air in cities is hotter than that of surrounding regions because of a high concentration of dark, heat-absorbent surfaces like asphalt.

. August 10, 2010 at 4:18 pm

“”AN ABSOLUTE dog’s breakfast” is how David Collins describes the standard of fan blades in air-conditioning systems. This might seem to be something that would vex only an engineer like Mr Collins, the boss of Synergetics Environmental Engineering, based in Melbourne, Australia. But it is a big problem. If blades were designed for better aerodynamic efficiency, instead of for being stamped from sheet metal as cheaply as possible, the electricity consumption of many cooling systems could, he says, be cut by a third.

Most air-conditioners using refrigerants consume lots of electricity because they employ mechanical compressors, which are piston-like machinery that squeeze the heated vapours. This turns the refrigerant back into its cooler liquid state to be used again. In countries where electricity is cheaper at night some air-conditioning machines now take a different approach. As the evening beckons, they start making ice. During the day fans blow air over the ice. In southern Europe roughly one in 20 air-conditioned offices is now cooled with ice, cutting electricity bills by about 10%.

She expects that this number will rise as efficiencies improve. In recent years thermal coolers have worked well with water at about 90°C or hotter. Now some models can be powered by water that is less than 80°C. This is important because in sunny climates rooftop solar panels are capable of heating water to 80°C. At present solar-cooling equipment is expensive. SolarNext, a German firm, has built a solar system to cool (and heat) a building almost the size of two family homes for about €50,000 ($63,000). Uli Jakob, who led the project, says recouping such an outlay would take a decade or more of energy savings. But he expects costs will fall as production of solar-cooling equipment ramps up. “

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