Housing Inefficiency’s Tenacious Companion: Climate Change
Greenhouse gas emissions, and housing’s potentially positive role in controlling them, get extra play on the Web this week
At least three stories published this week home in on problems associated with climate change, with one story focused on the politics of climate change legislation, another aimed at challenges to limiting greenhouse gas emissions caused by home energy use, and the third on what the science community says will happen should we fail to significantly reduce emissions sooner rather than later.
An article in Wednesday’s New York Times offered a sober assessment of the prospects for U.S. Senate adoption of a bill to combat global warming – a bill that almost certainly would be weaker than the American Clean Energy and Security Act, more commonly known as the Waxman-Markey bill, or H.R. 2454, passed by the House of Representatives in June.
The House bill has a provision that would require a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (the original target was 20%) and an 83% reduction by 2050 from 2005 levels through a cap-and-trade system. The House bill also calls for the establishment and nationwide implementation of improved building energy code, a provision opposed by many industry groups, including the National Association of Home Builders. The national code would mandate a 30% increase in efficiency over 2006 IECC requirements upon enactment, a 50% increase by 2014, and a 75% increase by 2029.
A Capitol Hill Workaround
As the Times story explains, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, have teamed up to try to create consensus on climate change legislation. But they are focusing more on a bill that, as Graham put it, would create jobs, whether by drilling for offshore oil or building wind turbines. The cap-and-trade option has, for this year at least, been nudged off the table and into the dumper.
The two other stories, meanwhile, suggest that the more prudent long-term course of action for our Senate lawmakers would in fact be to hew very closely to H.R. 2454 rather than retreat from key measures such as cap-and-trade and national code.
Dailyclimate.org, a division of nonprofit Environmental Health Services that provides overviews of news coverage related to climate change, on Monday posted a story highlighting challenges to improving the energy efficiency of housing in the U.S. The article cited an almost 5% increase since 2007 in the number of homes built to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star standard, but also noted that those homes accounted for only about 17% of the new inventory.
Selling efficiency to homebuyers
The story cites comments by Sam Rashkin, the national director of the EPA’s Energy Star Homes program, that illuminate housing’s role in emissions. Home energy use, he says, accounts for 16% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. But he adds that even though 99% of its homes are poorly insulated and sealed, most could be made at least 30% more energy efficient with cost-effective improvements.
Among the principal challenges are finding ways to help prospective homebuyers and current homeowners manage the costs and understand the benefits of energy efficiency. One priority: urge the mortgage industry to more prominently market “energy efficient” mortgages, which roll the cost of energy efficiency improvements into the mortgage. Marketing the benefits of energy efficiency in a convincing way may be the tougher challenge, but also the most expedient one, the story points out.
"Consumers really, really need more information about efficient homes," Aleisha Khan, executive director of the Building Codes Assistance Project, told Dailyclimate. "They just aren't getting it."
Scientists reemphasize a point
As if to remind everyone of the urgency of the situation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group formed in 1969 by MIT faculty and students, posted a news release on Tuesday that reiterates climate scientists’ imperatives regarding greenhouse gas emissions.
The UCS points out that a failure by the U.S. to pass a comprehensive climate bill in the coming months – including a provision that would require emissions cuts at least 80% below 2005 levels by 2050 – would lock in the worst consequences of climate change, most especially the trapping of heat by the earth’s atmosphere. The quickest and by far least expensive way to deal with the problem, the scientists say, is to act this year.
Intended to fire up interest in the subject before President Obama's State of the Union address on Wednesday, the group targets as in adequate the compromise proposal being floated in the Senate, and says it includes loopholes and exemptions that “would do less to promote renewable energy sources than state policies already in place.”
H.R. 2454, on the other hand, would put a price on carbon emissions and offer a mix of market incentives compelling enough to make its carbon cap goals realistic, UCS says.
"Economists agree that a carbon price is a critical, cost-effective way for the United States to reduce its emissions and transition to a clean energy economy," UCS economist Rachel Cleetus says in the memo. "A strong cap would encourage investments in clean energy sources and energy efficiency and help ensure that U.S. companies capture a share of the growing global market in clean technologies. Green is the new red, white and blue."