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For NET ZERO to become a reality, buildings must lead the way

Net-zero carbon emissions is all the rage these days and for good reason—human-generated CO2 emissions—whether you believe it or not—are destroying our environment. I’m a believer, but I have no interest in debating the problem; that’s already been covered extensively by people much more qualified than I. Rather, it’s the solution that’s got me a little puzzled, at least in the short term.

Ever since the Biden administration announced its very worthy and very aggressive goal of eliminating human-generated carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050, it seems that just about every industry has jumped on the opportunity to let the world know how it’s going to help achieve this objective with the auto industry, and electric vehicles, leading the charge (pun absolutely intended). Makes sense, right? Replace carbon-emitting, fossil-fuel-powered gasoline engines with carbon-free, clean-energy electric vehicles. This is a big deal, considering that transportation is responsible for approximately 29% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s a big problem, at least currently, with this rapid race to replace every power source associated with the burning of the fossil fuels with electricity—60% of today’s electricity generation comes from the burning of fossil fuels, including coal, natural gases, and petroleum.

So, let’s work the logic for a second—more electric vehicles and other electricity-powered fossil fuel alternatives will significantly drive up demand for electricity, which will, paradoxically, require the burning of higher levels of fossil fuels to meet that demand, negating the environmental benefits of electrification and, potentially, making the problem worse in the short term.

Oh yeah, there’s another potentially enormous problem related to a rapid escalation in electricity use—the ability of our aging and vulnerable national grid to handle even a minuscule increase in demand. But that’s another story for another time.

Look, there’s no arguing that for the U.S. to be carbon-emissions free (from human activities) by 2050 or by whenever, new sources of “clean” energy, such as solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, and others, will have to completely replace the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity. But we’re not there today, not even close, and it’s hard to imagine when we’ll have the massive infrastructure in place needed to replace the 60% of electricity currently generated via fossil fuels. With that sobering reality in mind, what can we do right now that will make a meaningful difference and set us on a path to a carbon-emissions-free future? Well, one thing we absolutely cannot do is wait for this “clean energy” infrastructure to be fully implemented before getting started. We simply cannot afford to push this problem down the road any longer. But what we can do and need to do right now is become better and more efficient at using energy. And here’s the thing; it must start with us, the building industry, because, frankly, we are the worst offenders. Don’t believe me? Consider these facts:

  • Buildings are responsible for half of all CO2 emissions, accounting for approximately 81.3% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities[1].

  • Companies waste 30% of all the electricity they consume at a cost of $100 billion annually in economic activity2.

  • U.S. based buildings are the primary culprit, consuming 75% of total electricity produced globally[2].

Facts are facts—buildings use a lot of energy, particularly electricity, and waste a significant portion of it, leading to some serious environmental and economic consequences. Think about it—what would the environmental and economic impacts be if, say, buildings only wasted 20% of the electricity they consumed? How about 10%? 0%? The building industry, like no other industry on this planet, is in the best position to help save this planet both today and into the future. One thing is for certain, if we truly hope to eliminate carbon emissions from human activities at any point in our future, buildings must and should lead the way. There’s just no other way to get there.

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