Climate Action

How Do Buildings Contribute to Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

This edition of the Carbon Pollution, Climate Policy and the Built Environment blog series will focus on U.S. buildings. The generation of electricity is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the number one source of energy consumption for U.S. buildings. According to the Department of Energy’s buildings energy data book, U.S. buildings account for 39% of primary energy consumption and 72% of all electricity consumed domestically. Buildings accounted for more energy use than the entire U.S. transportation sector in 2006 and produced more greenhouse gases than any other country in the world except China. The two most common sources of energy for buildings are purchased electricity and direct consumption of natural gas and petroleum for heating and cooking. Electricity accounts for approximately 78% of total building energy consumption and largely contributes to GHG emissions. According to EPA, GHG emissions from electricity have increased by about 18% since 1990, as the demand for electricity has grown and fossil fuel has remained the dominant source for generation. The amount of energy consumed has quadrupled since 1940, while the population roughly doubled. A sharp increase in housing units has also contributed to this trend. There were 140 million housing units in 2011, an increase of more than 250% since 1940.

The impact of buildings on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is undeniable. What can we do to address this issue? The DOE has established national efficiency standards for appliances, lighting products and equipment. The standards regulate more than 55 products manufactured or imported for sale in the U.S. In collaboration with the EPA, the DOE has also created a voluntary ENERGY STAR program to help consumers and businesses identify the most energy-efficient products, homes, buildings, and practices. In his recent Climate Action Plan, President Obama promised to establish heightened efficiency standards, particularly among government buildings. These standards are expected to reduce consumers’ electricity bills by hundreds of billions of dollars by 2030 and save enough electricity to power more than 85 million homes for two years. Unfortunately, many of the efficiency guidelines are not mandatory. It is largely up to building owners to adopt them. Therefore, it is important that climate policies integrate strategies to increase public awareness about the resources and programs available. There also need to be stricter energy codes for buildings, not just for appliances. The climate plan needs to include strategies to address these issues. Finding responsible and efficient ways to green buildings must be a centerpiece of our efforts to cut carbon pollution. This will require proper energy efficiency standards and guidelines. Fortunately, buildings are relatively adaptable. Next week, we’ll assess the EPA’s suggestions for constructing more energy-efficient buildings and renovating existing structures. Are you trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle? Check out our Ecological Footprint Quiz and learn how you can minimize your impact on the planet. – Written by Jiin G. Park Jiin G. Park is an intern at Earth Day Network and a MA candidate in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University.