As governments continue to race toward achieving the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, it is now evident that the COVID-19 pandemic had an unexpected side effect of helping to lower global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). However, with more individuals beginning to re-engage in pre-pandemic activities, emissions are once again on the rise. Based on preliminary data for 2021, Rhodium Group estimates that U.S. economy wide GHG emissions increased 6.2% relative to 2020, though emissions remained 5% below 2019 levels. While historically the building and construction industry has contributed around 40% of global emissions, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction found that buildings in 2020 were responsible for 37% of global emissions, 10% lower than in 2019 largely due to the pandemic.
With the U.S. construction sector forecasted to grow by 8.8%, it is to be expected that the expansion will result in a surge in GHG emissions. Fortunately, the industry has been provided with the tools and resources needed to make both an immediate and long-term impact on GHG emissions from the sector.
Short-Term Projects to Increase Community-Wide Sustainability
In November 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), allocating nearly $1.2 trillion in federal funds to necessary infrastructure projects across the country. Through the IIJA, state and local elected officials can update their jurisdiction’s infrastructure, while also constructing it to be sustainable and efficient for years to come.
While certain projects, such as investing in the renewable energy utility grid, might take years, there are projects that can be implemented to have immediate effects on the GHG emissions in local jurisdictions. For example, the IIJA makes federal funds available for the implementation of updated energy codes. After all, energy codes are a fundamental mechanism for driving reductions in energy use and GHG emissions. The U.S Department of Energy (DOE) found that from 2010 through 2040 energy codes will save U.S. home and business owners $138 billion and reduce emissions by 900 million metric tons (equivalent to the annual emissions of 227 coal fired power plants).
Energy codes such as the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) provide an immediate pathway to increased sustainability, yielding energy savings of 9.4% and GHG savings of 8.7% over the 2018 edition, while also saving homeowners an average of $2,320 over the life of a typical mortgage. The IIJA will provide an unprecedented investment of $225 million in grants to states and localities through the DOE to support the implementation of updated energy codes.
Retrofitting existing buildings to improve energy performance is necessary to achieve community-level GHG reduction goals while also generating savings for owners and occupants. Retrofits that include the building enclosure have the potential to significantly influence energy using systems including HVAC systems and lighting. Installing solar photovoltaics in conjunction with a re-roofing project adds carbon-free energy to the electricity grid that, when coupled with on site energy storage can enhance resilience.
Other solutions such as installing LED lighting and EV charging stations, have proven to help make communities more sustainable while saving taxpayers money on utilities. However, the building safety industry must also work to develop long-term solutions as well.
The Future of Building Safety Industry
While the federal government’s investment in the transition is an essential step, the industry must continue to take a proactive approach in developing resources and solutions that support reductions in GHG emissions. Understanding that it will take a collaborative effort, standards developers, like the Code Council, recognize the importance of having tools that support consistency in how the GHG emissions of buildings are measured and how savings are verified.
Existing tools like chapter 9 of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) provides processes for verifying the impacts of material choice through environmental product declarations (EPDs) and the impacts of buildings through life-cycle assessments. The ICC Evaluation Service (ICC-ES) provides verification of EPDs for many construction materials and products. ICC-ES also provides evaluations verifying that low-carbon concrete delivers the strength levels required in the codes.
Understanding that continuing to provide new resources to professionals is key, the Code Council has announced that it will develop a standard to support the consistent measurement and verification of carbon emissions across the building life cycle including in materials and construction processes used and during the operations and decommissioning phases. The standard is intended for use by governments, businesses and the financial sector as the underlying process for measurement and verification of any targets or requirements they set.
Federal, state and local governments have placed the reduction of GHG emissions as a goal of paramount importance, with ramifications that can be felt across all sectors of the economy and daily life. As decision makers continue to gain access to federal funds, SDOs must continue to step up and provide resources to aid officials in making informed, long-term decisions for more sustainable communities.
Reinforcing the importance of this topic, the Code Council has devoted the first week of Building Safety Month, celebrated in May, to “Planning for a Safe & Sustainable Tomorrow.” Building Safety Month is the annual global educational campaign to raise awareness around building safety and the important role building safety professionals play in delivering safe, sustainable and resilient buildings and communities. During the month, the organization will be hosting a lineup of free webinars. For more information on Building Safety Month and to register for the webinars, visit here.