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

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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.


David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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