Buildings are huge energy consumers: they are responsible for approximately 40% of the total global energy use. While this may seem bad, they also provide an excellent opportunity for efficiency improvements, which in turn will translate in large energy savings. It is therefore paramount, in the fight against climate change, that energy efficiency regulation be substantial and effective.
The way to ensure energy efficiency in buildings is through building codes. These codes set minimum standards for different systems of the building, such as heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and others. Of course, real state developers must also be encouraged to go above and beyond the minimum: for that, certifications are created, such as LEED in the US or BREEAM in the UK, which the building owners can display as a show of their modern design and environmental concerns. These codes can be implemented at different scales: national, regional or local. Each one of these provides advantages, but also drawbacks.
There are plenty of examples of national building code regulations that incorporate mandatory elements of energy efficiency, with varying degrees of proposed impacts and success: the EnEV 2009 in Germany, ASHRAE 90.1 in the United States, or the NECB in Canada, among others. The concerns with energy efficiency are somewhat recent and many countries have only recently updated their codes to incorporate stricter regulation to ensure it. There are many advantages for a national approach towards building energy efficiency: larger incentives, uniform regulation and political leadership are some of them. However, national building codes fall short in one important aspect: their ability to adjust to local particularities. In countries such as Switzerland, for instance, this may not be so relevant: due to their small size and geographical orientation, climates are essentially the same across the country and cities are small in size, facilitating the governance needed for the implementation. However in countries such as the United States, China, Brazil, even Italy, what is appropriate for one city may be a disaster for other. Naples and Turin, or San Francisco and New York, do not have the same climates, urban characteristics or culture. Not only the solutions must be different between these cities, but also the approach. In such case, it would perhaps be more effective to have cities determine their own codes and policies for building energy efficiency. Of course many cities would than choose not to participate, but one could expect that the progressive cities that take the lead will set an example for the other to follow, by demonstrating the potential savings in terms of both energy and costs.
There are already some examples of cities that chose to do so: New York City, as part of their PlaNYC, a plan to reduce GHG emissions, has created a building energy code in 2009. This code is constantly updated to reflect technological improvements as well as improvements on state and federal codes, by which they must also abide. As such, the NYC code is always equal or superior to the state code. Melbourne has also been on the forefront of these initiatives: the city’s “1,200 Buildings” plan received the C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership Award in 2013. This program was focused on encouraging the retrofitting of two thirds of the city’s commercial buildings. Their goal is an efficiency improvement of 38% in the commercial sector, which would help the city achieve its carbon neutrality goals. They did so, however, not through a top down strategy, but rather by making fiscal incentives available to property owners by facilitating loans and sharing the costs between owners and tenants. Other cities have, such as Vancouver, have developed action plans for the near future, which include ambitious targets, such as carbon neutrality of new buildings, but that are not yet enforced.
However there are still many obstacles to be faced: it is somewhat easy to regulate new buildings, but it is the old ones that are responsible for most energy waste. Harvard Business Review recently wrote an article on how old buildings are cities greatest challenge towards sustainability in the US. Retrofitting can be quite expensive, and it must go beyond commercial buildings and reach the residential sector as well. To ensure this, the best recipe is perhaps a mix of policies with a cost-effective financing solution. A survey from 2013 reported that 44% of respondents indicated initial costs as the main obstacle to retrofitting. So how to capture this sector and incentivize comprehensive energy efficiency measures across cities? New business models for this are constantly coming up and there are no certain solutions yet, but many ideas being tested. The Rocky Mountain Institute has a summary of the available financing mechanisms. Maybe the idea, which will propel retrofitting, is yet to come, or maybe it is already in there, but most likely it will be a combination of different ideas adapted to different contexts and needs. This is why doing this in an urban level is key: it makes tailor-made solutions much easier to achieve.
There is a clear trend of cities taking matters of energy efficiency in their own hands, and it makes sense. Cities are often autonomous, many have their own sustainable culture well developed, and they hold considerable political power, given that they house most of a country’s economical and political institutions. Moreover, this helps them gain recognition, differentiate themselves from others, reduce costs in the long run, and choose the approach that is more appropriate for their particular context. Some cities can be very ambitious, other choose to take baby steps, but there’s a clear convergence towards municipal regulation of building codes, which often are encapsulated within greater sustainability plans, and are key for their realization. Cities are already leading by example, more than countries, and their example has the power to pull an entire country in the right direction. This bottom up approach appears to be more organic and effective, but the challenge remains to find a way to effectively reach the top, and expand these initiatives across nations, continents, and ultimately, the world.
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