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Cities, towns, and suburbs: Toward zero-carbon buildings

CITIES, TOWNS, AND SUBURBS: Toward Zero-Carbon Buildings by Hillary Brown


Despite its persuasive momentum, the green building movement signifies a mere initial advance toward a low-carbon future. Even as we acknowledge that green facilities must be the building blocks of the resilient cities of tomorrow, we face significant barriers to a wholesale shift in the industry. Several challenges dominate...

...Viewed through a green building lens, conventionally-built buildings are rather poor performers. They generate enormous material and water waste as well as indoor and outdoor air pollution. As large containers and collection points of human activity, buildings are especially prodigious consumers of energy. They depend on both electricity and on-site fossil-fuel use to support myriad transactions: transporting and exchanging water, air, heat, material, people, and information.

Compared to the transportation and industrial sectors, buildings account for the lion’s share of U.S. energy use: 41 percent and growing, likely to over 50 percent by 2050. Distributed equally between residential and commercial users, buildings consume more than 70 percent of all electricity produced. With overall demand increasing at a rate of about 1.5 to 2 percent a year, buildings are the largest single source (43 percent) of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. It is thus through this very local, everyday activity of powering our facilities that building occupants unwittingly participate in global resource depletion and climate change.

Market Transformation So Far

Initially a self-organized effort of builders and architects, the green building movement today is a rapidly growing force in urban planning and real estate development, spanning the commercial, nonprofit, government, and institutional sectors. Over the last decade, professionals and organizations within the movement have developed countless guidance documents, design tools, and policy models, essentially “training wheels” that help to demystify the complex process of rethinking a conventional development project to be truly green. One of the most widely used tools is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating and certification system, a suite of guidelines and metrics for improving existing and new building performance, which has been in continuous development since 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The federal Energy Star program (a joint venture of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has also proved to be a tremendously effective benchmarking system, identifying best energy efficiency practices for close to 100,000 businesses and 200,000 homes...

About The Post Carbon Reader

Post Carbon Reader coverHow do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.

Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world's leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.

Editorial Notes: Hillary Brown is the Post Carbon Institute Fellow for Buildings and Design.

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