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Stickers for Buildings: Monitoring Environmental Impact

Cars Have Mileage Ratings – Why Don’t Buildings Have the Same for Carbon Emissions?

It is hard to believe, but there is a lot to learn from the automobile industry in terms of environmental efficiency. One model, in particular, is how car dealerships display stickers on each car stating its fuel consumption.

These stickers effectively communicate, and help control, the overall fuel consumption and the carbon emissions in all cars. The U.S. government was able to double new car fuel efficiency between 1975 and 1985. These results eventually lead to President Obama’s decision, in May 2009, to continue raising the average for cars and light trucks. By 2016, the estimated savings are expected to be 900 million metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of closing 194 coal-fired power generators.

What about Our Buildings?

What is preventing us from replicating this and applying it to our buildings? Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of total carbon emissions in North America, while SUVs are responsible for only three percent. Imagine the difference we could make by placing efficiency stickers on buildings and decreasing their emissions by 50 percent over a 10-year span. In only one year, a 50 percent reduction of building emissions could save 1.14 billion tons of carbon in the U.S.

There is no general standard for building performance and there are challenges when it comes to tracking energy efficiency of our buildings. City and government authorities do not have visibility into the “fleet average” performance of their buildings. Lack of information prevents the implementation of a policy to minimize building carbon emissions using the same procedure as seen with automobiles.

Change is really possible. Emerging technologies provide appropriate tools to perform measurements and calculations of carbon emissions, water usage and total energy usage. By introducing these measurement capabilities, we can evaluate each building’s performance and assign an efficiency sticker. When a city has acquired all measurements for its buildings, an average can be calculated in footprint per square meter of floor space.

Imagine that a city averages 50 kilograms of carbon per square meter, but government regulations under jurisdiction must achieve a target of under 40 kilograms of carbon per square meter in a five year span. This results in a 20 percent reduction. To reduce the overall footprint, a similar limitation can be placed on water and total energy consumption.

Comparison Brings Improvements

The U.S. government does not require in-depth information on a city’s buildings or specific targets for individual building types. It requires only an overall benchmark of the average footprint (comprised of carbon, water and total energy) and for individual cities to independently determine based on knowledge of building stock.

Residential buildings could be controlled through similar use of a footprint sticker and the benchmark average methodology. If houses provided visible stickers, comparison of carbon ratings and energy performance could be a determining factor towards buying a house. Neighbors could compare performance with one another, which would help drive change. 

Driving Towards Positive Change

We are currently headed in the right direction. President Obama hopes to make all U.S. buildings carbon neutral or with zero emissions by 2030. Other countries like the U.K. now require houses on the market to be energy rated. By having footprint stickers on buildings, city building stock averages and building emissions are severely lower, and they have created substantial global carbon savings.

Automobile companies have made a huge progress in the reduction of car pollution using measurement stickers and enabling direct comparisons. With the right tools, we can achieve the same improvement of operating efficiency in our buildings as we have with automobiles.

Ron Dembo is founder and CEO of Zerofootprint, which provides software and services to governments, corporations and universities that measure and manage their carbon footprint, and engages people in combating climate change.

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3 thoughts on “Stickers for Buildings: Monitoring Environmental Impact

  1. Stickers for buildings sounds like a good idea – but won’t work well in the real world – for the same reason that putting mileage stickers on sailboats or even powerboats isn’t done. There are too many variables that affect performance – starting with behavior change.

    Even the best well designed net zero or positive energy building will be a carbon-hog if the occupants are poor ‘captains’ of their ship. Leave the lights on all day and night, set the thermostat wrong. don’t take advantage of natural ventilation, etc. and the cash and carbon footprint rise dramatically.

    What could work is a net-zero ‘potential’ sticker for buildings designed well passively, efficiently, etc. That way owners and occupants could measure real world results against – potential.

    Real time energy use meters – or publishing utility bills on-line where the public and potential buyers could access the real world costs may do far more good.

  2. Ron, this is great point, and I wanted to let you know there is already a convergence towards energy labeling here in the U.S., although it is in the beginning stages. Secretary Donovan called for a MPG for homes in April 2009, but ASHRAE is already piloting its Building Energy Quotient (BEQ) labeling system this year, Earth Advantage Institute has already rolled out the Energy Performance Score (EPS) for homes in Oregon and Washington, and with help from NASEO is moving on to additional pilots in Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington and Alabama. Oregon and Washington legislatures are exploring making the EPS mandatory at time of listing, so it could be publicly attached to the RMLS record. Last but not least, the DOE will developing a voluntary federal energy labeling standard for homes, due out next month. The key point is that these labels provide not only a metric, but become part of a larger market mechanism and “ecosystem” whereby the labels are used by cities to track energy and carbon savings, by banks to create preferential financing packages, by insurers to qualify homeowners and businesses for less expensive premiums, etc. These labels then wind up serving as a green building catalyst.

  3. Check out what’s going on in Australia for some leading practice case studies in this area–the NABERs rating system for retrofitted building stock and the Green Star system for new construction are both driving tenants and property developers to make energy efficient infrastructure a priority. Studies indicate that most retrofitting opportunities will have incredibly short payback periods and result in significant carbon reductions. Point being, this isn’t rocket science and it’s already being done in other parts of the world.

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