Climate Action: Time to Make It Real

Climate Action: Time to Make It Real

A look at COP 23 and action items to combat climate change.


By Elizabeth Beardsley, USGBC Senior Environmental Policy Counsel

We Care About Places

Lately, it seems we are deluged with bad news about climate change and the rate at which the Earth is warming. Science tells us that humans are accelerating the process, and observed changes ranging from lower snow totals, glacial melt, increased extreme weather events, wildfires, drought, and rising    sea level show how climate change poses risks to the communities and places we care about. These predictions threaten our lives and way of life made real most recently by the three hurricanes that devastated areas of the U.S. and its territories this fall. While it’s hard to pinpoint the effect of climate warming on any specific weather event, scientists believe storms and flooding will be more extreme and frequent.

The Park Shops building on the north campus of NC State University is a historic, three story masonry structure originally constructed in 1914 now transformed into a 21st century, multi-functional building that exemplifies reuse and architectural adaptation.

For some, climate change may seem overwhelming and detached from everyday life. For others, the prospect of taking action comes with worry; what will these changes mean for me and my business? How can I act without hurting my livelihood or my family’s quality of life?

The reality is that we have solutions—and increasingly, they save money and deliver valuable co-benefits.

Solutions Front and Center at COP 23

Solutions are the focus of the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 23), taking place in November in Bonn, Germany. COP 23 marks the second meeting since the conference achieved the first-ever global consensus for climate action through the Paris Agreement, which remains a groundbreaking accomplishment. With Paris, 180 countries acknowledged that humans are a cause of climate change and that collective action should be undertaken to keep the planet’s warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

Green rooftops provide extensive environmental air quality benefits through the ability to absorb not only greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, but also pollutants and dust.

This will also be the first COP since the United States government announced its intent to withdraw from the agreement. There is tangible evidence of this: There will be no U.S. Center at the Conference for our country’s scientists, engineers, businesses, and policy makers to share knowledge and exhibit leadership. The U.S. government will be present at a reduced capacity, and its influence in the agreement is uncertain.

What’s exciting is that across the U.S., governors, mayors, and business leaders are working hard to fill this void and demonstrate progress. More than 2,300 leaders from cities, states, businesses, and universities, representing more than 127 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy, have signed the We Are Still In statement, pledging to “pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to take forceful action and to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.” Adding to this, a bipartisan coalition of 15 states and territories, representing 40 percent of the U.S. GDP, have joined together in the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to meet their share of the Paris Agreement. Significantly, they are investing and adopting policies to realize these pledges, from building codes to renewable portfolio standards.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is participating in the U.S. Climate Action Pavilion—sponsored by the We Are Still In coalition—where state, city, and private sector entities will affirm their commitment and share specific actions to accelerate the U.S. low carbon economy. Engaging in side events, representing our members and our mission, and collaborating with partners, USGBC’s goals at COP 23 are to advance solutions, and to reassure the party-nations that U.S. businesses, states, cities, and individuals remain dedicated to doing our part.

Meaningful Actions You Can Take Right Now

Now is a great time to consider the ways you can contribute to the collective climate action effort. Consider the menu of options below to help support a local, regional, and global transition to a low carbon society.

1. Measure Up
The starting point for improvement is understanding where you are. Measuring the carbon contribution of your project, building, product, or portfolio is a crucial exercise. For operations, tools like Arc and ENERGY STAR can help benchmark performance and prioritize improvement. For projects, in addition to energy-carbon modeling, whole building or product life cycle analysis for carbon is an underutilized opportunity to support decision making, and tools are increasingly available. If a comprehensive analysis is out of reach, consider what you can. This exercise alone can identify opportunities to reduce impact, such as selecting local materials that avoid carbon-intensive transportation or selecting products that sequester carbon. For building-scale projects, the Carbon Leadership Forum offers resources on life-cycle carbon assessment; for operations-scale, the Carbon Disclosure Project has guidance on measuring and disclosing emissions of portfolios.

2. Make a Commitment
Make a company commitment to climate action or adopting carbon emission reduction targets. According to We Are Still In, nearly half of the U.S.’s largest companies have at least one climate or clean energy target. Interest in climate commitments has risen in the building sector too. For example, many diverse companies have joined the Building and Real Estate Climate Declaration that USGBC initiated with Ceres and the Carbon Leadership Forum.

With the Paris Agreement in force, commitment platforms are gaining steam and specificity. The Climate Group’s RE100, under which companies commit to 100 percent renewable energy, is attracting businesses from all sectors including tech, finance, and investors. EP100 is a similar initiative seeking commitments to doubling energy productivity. For those in the design field, consider the AIA 2030 Commitment or the Structural Engineers 2050 commitment. The nonprofit Science Based Targets also supports companies in setting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with climate science.

Sitting office and residential buildings near alternative forms of transportation, like bike share stations, is one way to contribute to a low carbon future.

3. Use Less

The concept is simple: Less consumption reduces your carbon footprint. Look at ways to use space effectively. “Use less” extends to land as well: Think about core strategies of infill and densification over greenfields. Can you say Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY)? Resources are available from organizations such as Congress for the New Urbanism and the American Planning Association.

The corollary to using less is that reuse at all scales is beneficial. Put this into action by working with an existing building, rather than tear-down or new construction. Some estimate embodied carbon savings of 50 to 75 percent by renovating rather than building new. Reuse, and use recycled materials and products where possible, to avoid the energy consumption required to create new materials and those associated with transport and disposal of discarded materials.

4. Go Broader and Deeper
New construction and major rehabilitation can achieve deep energy efficiency and may have the opportunity to become net-zero carbon or close to it. New Buildings Institute, Rocky Mountain Institute, and USGBC offer lots of resources to help you get there. Key steps include reducing load and demand; meeting loads efficiently; and producing renewable energy on site.

Explore the options to reduce carbon impact from your project and look beyond energy in operations. Examples include enhanced refrigerant management and measures that directly reduce the use of potable water, nonpotable water, or raw materials.

5. Store It
Carbon, that is. There are now more ways than ever before for your project to provide long-term carbon storage. Consider the many Greenbuild exhibitors that bind carbon, such as cement substitutes and siding. Check out the Greenbuild Expo floor, showcasing more of these innovations each year.

Beyond the building wall, managing the site and landscape can also help. Avoiding soil and tree loss and disturbance helps reduce carbon release to the atmosphere; green roofs, new trees, and living walls can mitigate urban heat islands, thus reducing building cooling needs, and potentially sequestering carbon.

6. Maximize Your Project’s Positive Influence
Pay attention to how your project or building influences choices for food and transportation. Those non–energy categories really do influence the total carbon impact of a building on the community.

Stopping food waste in the U.S. could become a significant solution, cutting carbon emissions associated with food production, distribution, and waste disposal.

According to National Geographic, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Leading cities are starting to offer municipal food composting, and private companies are starting to serve restaurants and commercial entities—leading to benefits like new jobs and industries, and developing high-quality fertilizer. You can design your spaces to make food composting easier, purchase locally produced crops, and adopt responsible policies for catering. Check out TRUE Zero Waste certification to get started.

Transportation is also a key factor. In the U.S., reducing carbon emissions from transportation remains a big challenge. In Massachusetts, for example, after implementing policies over the past decade to drive aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy uptake, the state now identifies transportation as its biggest hurdle to decarbonizing.

USGBC has long recognized the role buildings can play in influencing employee transportation. Siting decisions are important, and company support for alternative transportation can help sway employee choices. Building managers and companies can support availability and convenience for alternatives—with electrical vehicles charging in parking facilities, secure bike storage and showers, shuttles to mass transportation, and public transit subsidies.

7. Engage with Others and Get Inspired

Your project, building, or company can have a big influence on employees and the supply chain. Start a conversation with your peers, suppliers, and customers. Understand where they stand on climate mitigation and find areas of mutual interest and opportunity. Learn what your city is doing and support climate-smart policies.

Many climate-aiding strategies have big co-benefits—for local economies, water resources, public health, occupant comfort, and saving money. Find those touchpoints that resonate, and hone your elevator speech on what you’re doing and why. For tips, see EcoAmerica’s guide to effective climate change communication.

Challenge yourself to learn something new through a course, podcast, or book. Renew your arsenal of strategies. Talk to others and see the issue through their eyes; it is sure to make you think. Ask them to join you in taking one step toward climate mitigation, whether personally or as a company.

Above all, do something. Make it personal, because ultimately it is. You are part of the solution.

San Diego, California, provides charging stations for public use on municipal property and in parking garages and encourages businesses to do the same.