A mix of high-tech and old-fashioned energy efficiency tactics can deliver carbon-neutral buildings, right now. But the U.S. needs to pick up the pace.
Is it too much to ask Americans to take their foot off the gas and reset their thermostats? On March 18, the International Energy Agency released a 10-point plan for reducing oil use, arguing that advanced economies can readily cut demand by 2.7 million barrels a day in the next four months, an amount large enough to avoid major supply shortages as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roils the energy market.
The plan’s major prescriptions will look familiar to anyone who recalls the OPEC shocks of the 1970s: reducing speed limits to improve gas mileage, boosting transit use, and discouraging non-essential car and air travel. But its exclusive focus on the transportation sector overlooks the substantial efficiency gains to be had from the built environment: Buildings consume about 40% of the energy used in the U.S. every year.
Yet reducing energy use in buildings has been stigmatized by fossil-fuel interests as a lifestyle deprivation — an argument that’s been internalized by pundits and politicians even as geopolitical turmoil drive spikes in oil prices and climate change impacts upend millions of lives.
That’s not the case: There’s ever-growing panoply of efficiency measures — better insulation, improved heating and air-conditioning, less-polluting appliances — that could help the building sector rapidly decarbonize. By 2030, almost all new buildings could consume zero net energy — net meaning there’s some give and take from the grid to equal zero use. That’s a big deal, especially with a corollary switch to electrified forms of transportation.
“Acting at scale is so eminently possible,” Lindsay Baker told me. She is the CEO of the International Living Futures Institute (IFLI), which runs the Living Building Challenge, an extraordinarily rigorous certification program that has pushed the building industry to achieve energy use reductions deemed all but impossible a few years ago.