There is a movement happening all across America that few people are talking about. And while it may not be sexy, it is serious and substantial. The building sector, which comprises the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, is moving toward zero net emissions.
That means the carbon footprint of commercial, residential and municipal buildings in leading cities will be zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. That means these buildings won’t consume more energy for heating, hot water, lights and appliances than they produce—and they may even be net energy producers.
Cities all across the North American continent—New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Vancouver, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin—and across the Atlantic Ocean are implementing plans now to eliminate energy waste, make buildings energy neutral or positive, maximize building energy efficiency, and decarbonize building energy.
And they’re not waiting for another international agreement to be signed. They’re moving now, irrespective of a court case or a climate treaty.
Setting aside the climate benefits for a moment, what the cities are doing is starting to move the market. It’s an investor's dream as the potential energy savings and financial returns are substantial.
For city managers, too, the cost-cutting potential is enormous. Waste disappears. Efficiency goes way up. Occupant health is improved. Buildings are more resilient to extreme weather and storms. And people are more comfortable and enjoy living and working in them more, way more, the research shows.
This all immediately benefits a building owner's—and city’s—bottom line. Residents are newly and rightly empowered, harnessing the sun and the wind, not tied down to the conventional utility model, which, in most cases, still penalizes us for consuming more efficiently.
London, for example, is rolling out its own version of energiesprong, a Dutch model for refurbishing homes to net zero-energy levels.
Each renovation is completed within a week while the occupants remain inside. Everything is financed through future energy savings so occupants pay less on their monthly bills, and they get a new kitchen and bathroom out of it, too.
Does this sound too good to be true? They're building 110,000 of them in the Netherlands right now, all of them affordable. Replicating this in London will be a game changer for the city.
Other cities in North America and New York State are considering doing the same, which will radically shift America’s real estate markets. Cities, such as New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, already have either a "zero net emissions" (ZNE) requirement in place for all new municipal buildings or are working on one. And more than a dozen other cities across the U.S. are working on plans to get all new buildings to ZNE by 2030 and retrofit all existing buildings to ZNE by 2050. This is the future of climate policy, happening now.
Vancouver, Canada, is designing its new building code to require all new city-owned and institutional facilities to produce ZNE based on the European "passive haus" model. Sydney, Australia, is creating one for all new residential high-rises, and ZNE buildings are even starting to pop up in India and China.
Post-Paris climate agreement, as international economists and environmentalists look for more ways to cut costs and cut carbon, they should start by looking at their homes and offices. More and more buildings are no longer the dirty fuel guzzlers they once were, and it’s about time. Their carbon footprint was enormous. But it’s all about getting to zero now.
Johanna Partin directs the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Michael Shank, PhD, teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.