Buildings are big polluters: here’s the path to their decarbonisation.

Buildings account for 39% of all the carbon emissions in the US, more than any other sector. According to the US Green Building Council, the emissions of US buildings alone are more than those of any other country except China, hence the need to ensure the development of mechanisms to address the climate challenge.

With the majority of the emissions from buildings due to the combustion of fossil fuels for heating, cooling, lighting, and powering appliances and equipment, there is a need for the development of more energy-efficient and climate-friendly building codes. However, with the continued increase in urbanisation, the number of buildings is expected to increase, a development that will in turn result in an increase in carbon emissions if the current emissions from the sector are not addressed. The US Green Building Council projects the commercial buildings sector alone to record an increase in carbon emissions by 1.8% per annum through 2030 if strict and ambitious climate mitigation measures are not implemented.

Commenting on the role energy-efficient buildings can play in helping decarbonising the US economy, Michael Furze, director of Washington State Energy Office, said: “To reach the necessary emissions reductions by 2030, the industry needs a climate-focused code now.

“Washington state has shown this work can be done, and I believe that now is the time to secure the health, economic, and resilience benefits of aligning building codes and standards with climate goals…”

Although existing building energy efficiency codes in the US have been effective to a certain extent in helping reduce carbon emissions and energy usage over the past years, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) says they are not adequate for the US to meet its 2030 and 2050 net-zero goals hence the need for the development of new codes and updating of existing ones.

Advances in the most recent three-year code cycle update have delivered energy savings–and resulting emissions reductions–of approximately 9% for residential in the IECC and 4.7 % for commercial in ASHRAE 90.1 building codes.“But this progress is neither consistent nor assured, according to a statement.

This has pushed RMI to partner with the New Buildings Institute (NBI) to ensure the development of new energy efficiency and building codes that are in line with the Paris Agreement climate action targets.

RMI and the NBI have formed the Codes for Climate, an initiative that will support the development and adoption of climate-aligned new construction codes and existing building performance standards for states and cities. The initiative will aim states and cities whose building and energy efficiency codes are advanced compared to national model codes.

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To ensure new codes to be developed and existing ones are able to help keep the temperature rise under 1.5°-degrees Celsius, Codes for Climate will:

  • Work with multiple states and cities to provide the technical assistance needed to get climate-aligned codes;
  • Engage in the ASHRAE and International Code Council (ICC) development processes to ensure forward progress on carbon-based outcomes for new construction and existing building renovations; and
  • Develop codes and policies to meet the needs of states and cities working towards carbon-free buildings.

NBI Director of Codes Kim Cheslak, adds: “We are encouraged by the actions of and are working alongside ASHRAE and the ICC to take climate change seriously, but actions of special interest groups have historically flattened progress, diverting codes from progress on the trajectory to zero.”

In addition to prioritising states and cities that are well advanced in codes development compared to the national level, Codes for Climate’s works will first focus on the development of codes for application on new construction projects before addressing building performance standards for existing structures.

Using NBI’s recently released Building Decarbonization Code overlay to the 2021 IECC as a starting point, code language will be developed to meet the urgency of achieving a 1.5°-degrees Celsius target in new construction by 2030.

Jacob Corvidae, a principal at RMI in Carbon-Free Buildings, adds: “New construction is the low-hanging fruit in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment.

“Getting to work now on building codes that decarbonize buildings by 2030 will give cities and states a vital near-term tool in the climate fight.”