Real estate is a targeted sector in U.S. President Barack Obama’s recently released climate action plan. Calls for enhanced energy efficiency, reduced dependence on refrigerants with global warming potential and greater consideration of severe weather threats in urban planning, structural design and infrastructure capacity all apply broadly to the built environment.
This includes buildings in Canada, as one of the plan’s three central goals is to instigate a co-operative and co-ordinated international effort to combat climate change and adapt to an increasingly volatile natural environment. Specifically, Obama’s plan urges Canada, as one of the 17 governments participating in the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, to prioritize energy efficiency gains and emissions reductions in the buildings sector. A push for global free trade in environmental goods and clean energy technologies could also have beneficial cost implications for building systems and materials while opening up new markets for Canadian products.
“Just as no country is immune from the impacts of climate change, no country can meet this challenge alone,” the plan’s introductory supposition states.
Nevertheless, Canadian-based advocates suggest the U.S. is currently carrying a greater share of that load.
“Despite claims that Canada is acting in lockstep with the United States on climate policy, (this) announcement highlights that Canada is falling further behind when it comes to clean energy, energy efficiency and climate action,” Hannah McKinnon, national program director with the public interest and advocacy group, Environmental Defence, said in response to the climate plan’s release.
On the supply side of the equation, energy generation tops Obama’s list of domestic concerns and envisioned initiatives, with proposed actions to cut carbon pollution from existing and new power plants, promote renewable energy and develop cleaner forms of fossil fuel-fired energy. Turning to demand, the plan outlines a package of heightened standards, conservation targets, incentives and financial policies to prompt energy savings.
A new benchmark has been set for 2030, aiming for a three billion tonne reduction in carbon emissions through new efficiency standards for appliances and conservation within the building portfolios of the U.S. government and associated federal agencies. The president’s Better Buildings Challenge, which now tallies owners and managers of two billion square feet of commercial and industrial space committed to cutting energy consumption by 20 per cent by 2020, will be expanded to include private and public multi-residential housing.
The Obama administration has pledged ongoing support for performance contracting – a continuation of the December 2011 presidential memorandum that has already seen federal agencies implement $2.3 billion in energy efficiency improvements through more than 300 contracts with utilities and private sector contractors. The climate action plan also promises to synchronize building codes, develop a standardized contract to finance federal investments in energy efficiency and adopt the Green Button standard for aggregating and managing energy data across the U.S. government’s real estate portfolio.
As parties to the Montreal Protocol, both Canada and the U.S. have been leading proponents of a phased reduction in the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Obama’s climate plan reiterates this stance. It urges private sector investment in low-emissions technology – an effort the U.S. Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) is already pursuing through its Low Global Warming Potential Alternative Refrigerants Evaluation Program, which has thus far tested and assessed 38 refrigerants in 12 types of cooling and refrigerating equipment.
HFCs – unlike chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) – are not ozone-depleting chemicals. However, the commonly used HFC-based refrigerant, R-134a, has greater global warming potential than some HCFC-based coolants. Upon escape, R-134a remains in the atmosphere for approximately 14 years, putting it in the category of so-called short-lived climate pollutants along with methane, which has 20 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
More than 30 countries, including Canada, have now signed on to the U.S. initiated Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-lived Climate Pollution, which Obama’s plan identifies as one of the vehicles for international co-operation and action.
The plan also endorses two other international programs to support energy efficiency that include Canada among participants: the Global Superior Energy Performance Partnership, geared to industrial facilities and commercial buildings; and the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Initiative, which addresses consumer products, procurement practices, standards and labelling programs.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management magazines.