The Biden administration’s proposal to require new and substantially renovated federal buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030 reflects the fact that our built environment must be front and center when it comes to climate action. Buildings are responsible for about 40% of the world’s energy-based greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions from buildings and construction hit record highs last year. We can’t curb climate change without slashing emissions from buildings.
It won’t be easy. We spend 90% of our lives indoors, and when it comes to decarbonization, buildings represent the greatest economic heft, emotional weight, and environmental lift of any sector. Buildings have immediate climate impacts and also have long lifespans. Construction decisions — good or bad — have lasting implications for markets and for societies.
But the upside potential is enormous and goes far beyond the essential task of stabilizing Earth’s climate. If we get building decarbonization right, we can create a future that is not only more sustainable and resilient but also healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous.
There’s a growing movement to put buildings at the center of climate action. When I organized a roundtable discussion at this year’s Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh several weeks back, energy officials from governments around the world and leaders from international corporations and influential nonprofits all understood the building and construction sector as an enormous unrealized opportunity to rapidly advance clean, renewable energy. Politicians voiced particular interest in jobs and in health and safety benefits from less pollution and more resilient infrastructure. CEOs talked about the business opportunities inherent in matching their companies’ technologies with the need for climate solutions. And nonprofits kept up a steady and urgent drumbeat of calls for net zero buildings as soon as possible.
At a related event, dozens of executives from the world of business and nonprofits gathered to discuss leveraging American innovation and entrepreneurship to drive progress toward a net-zero built environment. We talked about investors’ increasing interest in clean tech. We shared stories of enthusiastic entrepreneurs – young people and more experienced folks from a wide variety of backgrounds and from all across the country — inventing new carbon-cutting technologies for all kinds of buildings, from homes and schools to stores and offices.
It’s a kind of excitement I sense time and time again at IMPEL, the building technologies accelerator I lead at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Every year, innovators with promising concepts for clean building technologies gather to learn the business skills they need to take their products to market. Their innovations include low-carbon building materials made from hemp, 3-D printed thermal energy storage that could replace toxic chemical batteries, drones that use machine learning to scan buildings across entire neighborhoods to detect leaking air or water, and compact, quiet, attractively designed wind turbines with small footprints that can be installed in places where large turbines won’t fit. Over the first three years of the IMPEL program, innovators have secured over $75 million in funding to help bring their building technologies to market.
Of course, no building is an island, and action on a community scale is where the potential benefits of decarbonizing the built environment seem almost limitless. Picture a whole campus or neighborhood full of energy-efficient homes, offices, stores, and other buildings, each with smart appliances and all powered by on-site renewable generation. Electric vehicle charging stations and energy storage abound, and all the buildings are knit together by a community smart grid with digital interconnections.
That’s the future, and it’s not far off. From where I stand, the future is clear: first buildings, then neighborhoods, and then the whole world, running on clean energy that drives prosperity and benefits people and the planet.
Reshma Singh is a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office. Concurrently, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she leads the technology-to-market IMPEL