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On the Front Line of Climate Change....Buildings!

David Lawrence's picture

Efforts to fight climate change tend to focus on emissions, usually dirty ones, like vehicle exhaust or the toxic belching of coal-fired power plants. A blast of diesel fumes in your face is a good reminder that these things are bad for both people and the planet. So it’s no surprise that we zero in on cheerful, clean solutions, like solar power and zippy electric cars.

But anyone who has lived in the former Soviet Union knows that buildings can also be incredibly wasteful, hemorrhaging heat in gushing torrents. Winter after freezing winter, I stuffed cotton into gaps in the window frame to block out the cold. And I was always astonished that people—including me—could only regulate temperatures in overheated apartments by opening their windows in subzero conditions.

 

The problem isn’t limited to former Soviet countries, or to windows. In a recent article in the PPP journal, Handshake, Prashant Kapoor, a Green Building specialist at IFC, points out that nearly half of all energy produced globally is used to heat, cool or ventilate buildings. Since we spend so much of our lives indoors, the opportunities to find ways to cut energy use in buildings are vast.

Making buildings greener seems to be getting more and more attention. The Economist recently reported that growing grass on city rooftops, a part of Chicago’s Climate Action Plan, greatly reduces the energy needed to cool the building in summer. In Seattle, the Bullitt Foundation is building the greenest building on earth, which will use solar energy to generate electricity and heat (as well as process its own waste). And in London, a new fundwill offer low-cost loans to improve energy efficiency in public buildings.

The idea behind green buildings is that savings in energy and fuel costs can pay for itself over time, saving money in the long run while reducing both carbon emissions and pollution. It sounds like a winner. But I also love the idea of buildings being self-sufficient, not relying on a central grid or anyone else for energy, heating and lighting. The more a building can do for itself, the less costly infrastructure we need to build.

Mr Kapoor points out that simple energy efficiency measures, such as low-energy light bulbs, smart thermostats or better insulation, can reduce power costs by up to a third. This can save people a lot of money, and as The Economist points out, lead to significant savings in buildings that are active around the clock, like airports, hospitals or police stations.

That’s where public-private partnerships (PPPs) come in. Governments can do a lot to encourage greener buildings by making energy-efficiency a requirement in PPP transactions. Since PPPs are used more and more often for airports, hospitals and schools, this should be an easily achievable goal that will save governments a lot of money.

Mr Kapoor lists many reasons why there hasn’t been more progress. But I think the growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, as well as hard economics, will change that. Handshake  mentions examples—the main airport in the Maldives and hospitals in Mexico. But if the idea catches on, especially in the cold countries of the former Soviet Union, I think we’ll see a real difference.

Comments

The article mentioned in this entry focuses on technical aspects of energy efficiency in buildings. The improvements mentioned there, if implemented, will certainly improve the emission standards of buildings. In former Soviet Union, these technical possibilities are well know and understood. Capital is also available and, after recent increase of energy prices, the economic incentives also seem to be there for people to invest in energy efficiency improvements of their buildings. In residential sector of former Soviet Union, the problem lays in the inadequate institutional arrangements for the residential sector. The residents are unable to take a binding decision on carrying out any capital investment in their residential building (unless they all agree, which is impossible in a building with over 100 different owners). Also, the heat consumption is often not metered; normative consumption factors (per square meter of floor area for example) are used instead to calculate the heating costs, spreading out the system inefficiencies evenly between all the residents. This situation is a legacy of old soviet system, where the apartments were owned by the state and only made available to the residents. The state took care of the maintenance, heating and energy prices were extremely low. Following the massive privatization of apartments in the 90's nobody really thought about creating a viable framework for maintenance and improvements to those buildings.

Given the rising cost of electricity (and therefore cooling/ heating), one really wonders that what is it that stops people from experimenting with ways to keep their buildings more green. One of the very simple ideas is to have a terrace garden - developed and maintained by building residents. But alas, the pain of execution is far severe than paying few bucks more on a monthly utility bill!

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