To meet long-term climate goals, substantial energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions must be obtained from existing buildings. Although programs to encourage energy efficiency upgrades to existing buildings have operated for decades, at current rates, it will take approximately 500 years to complete whole-building retrofits on all residences (homes and apartments) and more than 60 years to complete such retrofits on all commercial buildings. New and more aggressive approaches are needed. 

“Burning fossil fuels to provide heat and hot water to homes and buildings is not only bad for the climate, it pollutes the air and threatens public health,” said Antha Williams, global head of environmental programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “As cities, counties, and states look for significant ways to address the climate crisis, tackling inefficient buildings is a must.”


One Solution: Energy Retrofit Mandates

A new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) calls for cities and states to mandate retrofits of inefficient buildings by requiring them to meet standards that cap their energy use or carbon emissions — a policy that 10 leading jurisdictions have adopted, including many in just the past 18 months.

“We have lots of good voluntary programs that help building owners improve energy efficiency, but the truth is they’re just not nearly enough when you look at the climate math,” said Steven Nadel, report co-author and executive director of ACEEE. “Most buildings today are going to be in use for decades to come. If we don’t put any limits on the carbon they’re responsible for, we’ll be locking in terrible climate impacts.”

ACEEE finds that building performance standards could greatly reduce the nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that come from buildings. If applied to two-thirds of existing buildings, these standards could reduce carbon emissions in 2050 by more than the current annual emissions from all buildings, power plants, and vehicles in New York state. Building performance standards are an effective response because policymakers set overall limits and let the building owners decide which upgrades they’ll use to implement them.


Cities Take the Lead

Cities across the country are taking the lead by setting ambitious energy standards for buildings and working with owners to help achieve them. City council members and mayors across the country are stepping up to implement these types of policies as a major part of their climate action plans.

Washington, D.C., New York City, Washington state, and St. Louis have enacted building performance standards. Such standards are also in place in Boulder (Colorado), Reno (Nevada), Tokyo, France, the Netherlands and England/Wales. Similar proposals are under consideration in Boston, Colorado, and Montgomery County, Maryland, among other places.


Commercial Buildings

Most policies are targeted at commercial buildings and typically require existing buildings larger than a specified size to meet a certain energy-efficiency standard, based on either energy use or greenhouse gas emissions per square foot of space. This effectively requires owners of less-efficient buildings to make efficiency upgrades by certain deadlines, generally several years in the future. Building owners can use any combination of efficiency upgrades to meet the standard, such as improved heating and cooling, new insulation, upgraded windows, or a host of other measures. 

Building benchmarking is an important precursor for performance standards and stakeholder consultation is important before standards are proposed. Multiple approaches to performance standards are available, and each jurisdiction must pursue approaches that work for its communities. However, it takes time to build support and work out details.


Single-Family Performance Standards

Compared with the United States, Europe and Canada have been more willing to tackle single-family owner-occupied homes. Mandatory performance standards have already been adopted in France and are being considered in Scotland, and British Columbia. Many different approaches are being used, in part because each jurisdiction is different. Some of the standards apply to owner-occupied homes and others only to rental properties.

There is wide variation among existing policies, and policymakers considering building performance standards should consult local stakeholders to develop policies that meet local needs. Jurisdictions that set such policies should devote resources to educating building owners and managers, providing technical assistance, offering financing and incentives, providing flexible alternatives for meeting goals, and ensuring effective enforcement. 

Jurisdictions have wide latitude to craft policies that make sense for local communities and the ACEEE report, titled Mandatory Building Performance Standards: A Key Policy for Achieving Climate Goals, contains valuable information about potential elements of a mandatory efficiency program. Whatever path local governments follow — it’s important to start immediately. Time is running out.


 — Adapted from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy