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.