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Published March 25, 2008 08:43 AM

North American Commission Pushes for Green Building Design

An organization led by North America's top environmental officials has issued a new report calling for greater international collaboration to build green.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), formed to address environmental concerns within North America's free-trading nations, stated the need for "a lasting and achievable vision" of green buildings. The vision for Canada, the United States, and Mexico includes the creation of stakeholder task forces in each country, targets to build net zero-energy buildings, and the promotion of private sector financing.

"This effort can help strengthen the economies of North America by spurring new markets and business opportunities for manufacturers, utilities, and other companies," said the report, which the Montreal-based commission released on March 13.

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The targets recommended by the commission follow the framework of U.S. architect-turned-activist Ed Mazria's "2030 Challenge," which calls for new buildings to be designed to emit half or less of the greenhouse gases of the regional average for their type. The challenge also outlines a target for "carbon-neutral" buildings by 2030, meaning the structures would require no fossil fuel-emitting energy to operate.

Commercial and residential buildings currently consume a large share of total energy needs across North America: 20 percent in Canada, 30 percent in Mexico, and 40 percent in the United States, the report said. Spending more money upfront for efficient design is one of the simplest solutions for reducing energy use, say green building experts. Yet despite the potential gains, green building is being used in only about 2 percent of non-residential and 0.3 percent of residential structures in the United States and Canada. No reliable data is available for green building in Mexico, the report says.

The U.S. Green Building Council, the authority that grants green design certification, says environmentally friendly construction, on average, reduces energy use 30 percent, carbon emissions 35 percent, water use 30 to 50 percent, and generated waste 50 to 90 percent. The commission's report also highlights the health benefits associated with green buildings, such as the effect of improved ventilation on indoor air quality, estimated at $58 billion a year.

In December, international consulting firm McKinsey & Company released a sweeping cost-benefit analysis of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The report said improving energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings would be by far the cheapest and most effective first step.

"Most improvements use existing technology," the report said. "Together, they could offset 70 percent of incremental power...forestalling the need to build many of the new power plants projected through 2030."

Improving the design of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems (HVACs) may not generate enough savings to offset the cost of improved efficiency. But all other building improvements, such as installing efficient lighting, retrofitting enhanced insulation, and switching to renewable energy for water heaters, would eventually save money over time, the McKinsey report said.

The CEC's report discusses some of the major roadblocks to green building design in North America. A shared problem is the insistence of governments and institutions to remain fixed within operational budgets, which do not consider the life cycle of a building's expenses. Also, tenants who pay for improved energy efficiency do not reap the economic benefits, an obstacle known as "the split incentive problem." To address this, many landlords are now offering a "green lease" that rewards green building improvements.

In Mexico, the report said, a "paucity of urban planning and building regulations" is limiting progress. But among the steps forward, a Mexican housing fund last year formed a "green mortgage" program that offers more affordable mortgages to homeowners who purchase green buildings.

The CEC, formed in coordination with the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, is led by top environmental officials in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. However, the commission says the report does not reflect the views of its member nations, but rather of the CEC's professional staff.

 
Ben Block is a staff writer at the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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