It may not be easy to decarbonize the building sector, but it is possible 

Facts are facts: the building sector is a significant contributor to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, both in the US and globally. Achievable solutions must be explored and pursued, as GHG emissions contribute to the widespread and worsening impacts of human-induced climate change. Emissions also have adverse effects on local environments and populations by compromising indoor air quality and exacerbating outdoor air pollution. Mitigating the effects of carbon emissions will take an economy-wide, all-hands-on deck effort.

This spring, the National Institute of Building Sciences Consultative Council, an assembly of high-level building industry representatives, released a report detailing recommendations to policymakers regarding decarbonizing the US built environment. The 2022 Moving Forward Report breaks down the challenges to decarbonization and provides recommendations to accelerate reductions in both embodied and operational carbon in existing buildings and new construction.

Decarbonizing the built environment: recommendations
Decarbonization not only benefits society, but many potential benefits can accrue directly to building owners who invest in decarbonization. For example, energy efficiency improvements and onsite renewable generation capacity can reduce owners’ utility bills and other related energy costs, while also increasing a building’s resilience to extreme weather events. In addition, buildings that are energy efficient and have low GHG emissions may be more attractive to buyers or renters, which can increase overall property values, and decarbonization investments can also improve a building’s indoor air quality, which can be beneficial for the health and well-being of building occupants.

The task of decarbonizing the building sector will be difficult, but there are multiple achievable, scientifically proven pathways to doing so. Drawing on the latest research and industry best practices, the recommendations below are designed to promote collaboration and information exchange, as well as the sharing of costs and benefits, to continue the important process of decarbonizing the built environment. These recommendations supplement, and should not replace, other necessary actions to adapt the built environment to a changing climate and make our buildings and communities healthier and more resilient to natural hazards.

Coordination across the building sector.
Policymakers should prioritize and leverage the expertise of the private sector around decarbonization goals and continue to collaborate across sectors. This is especially important for agencies with regulatory missions and substantial private sector impact, including the US. Environmental Protection Agency, US. Department of Energy, and the US. Department of Housing and Urban Development. These agencies should continue to engage with building owners and portfolio managers to discuss the most effective incentives that can drive action to reduce operational emissions and embodied carbon in buildings leased by the federal government.

Codes and standards. Federal, state, and local governments should increase investment in understanding the current landscape of energy code compliance, tools, resources, and best practice compliance methods for all building types. Additionally, continuing education and training for both current code officials and the next generation of code officials should be a priority.

Workforce. Governmental bodies should increase investment in continuing education and training for developing a next-generation building sector workforce that can help to address the shortage of skilled and unskilled laborers in the building trades.

Embodied carbon accounting and data transparency and disclosure. Federal agencies and the administration should ensure that all proposed action and mandates are working from a common definition of decarbonization; this includes commonly shared, publicly available performance data to ensure shared progress and tracking. Additionally, component and material manufacturers should continue to develop environmental product declarations (EPD) verified by an accredited EPD Program Operator. Agencies should provide technical assistance and funding to support development of a generally accepted lifecycle approach to evaluating whole-building environmental impacts, one that balances operational GHG emissions and embodied carbon considerations. Once developed, building designers, owners, and developers should use this approach to evaluate projects, determine their embodied carbon and operational GHG emissions, and support development of baselines for common building types.

Market transformation. Federal, state, and local governments should provide continued policy support to facilitate decarbonization efforts at every stage of the building lifecycle; this includes design and construction (e.g. building energy codes), operation (e.g. benchmarking, disclosure, and performance standards), renovation (e.g. incentivize or subsidize energy efficiency and/or decarbonization retrofits), and end-of-use.

Existing buildings. Federal, state, and local governments and the building industry should increase investment in understanding and overcoming the challenges to decarbonization posed by the existing building stock. A significant portion of existing buildings will continue to operate for decades, but extreme variability in the age, design, and construction of these buildings constrains the implementation and widespread applicability of technologies and approaches that can drive decarbonization.

Equitable decarbonization. Federal, State, and Local Governments should allocate dedicated funding for disadvantaged or low-income communities to support decarbonization efforts. Additionally, federal agencies should critically examine whether certain decisions in pursuit of decarbonization goals, such as facility closure, would harm disadvantaged or low-income communities.
This article was contributed by the staff from the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). NIBS brings together labor and consumer interests, government representatives, regulatory agencies, and members of the building industry to identify and resolve problems and potential issues in the built environment. NIBS is a non-profit, non-governmental organization.