Navigant Research Blog

Buildings and Climate Change

— November 6, 2015

Telescopers_webAccording to the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, the buildings sector is estimated to be worth 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP), or roughly $7.5 trillion. Currently, buildings consume about 40% of global energy, 25% of global water, and 60% of global electricity. Buildings also emit more than 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under the business-as-usual projection accompanied by rapid urbanization, emissions caused by the buildings sector may more than double by 2050.

However, the buildings sector has among some of the most cost-effective and proven solutions for reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions. There are commercially available technologies that can reduce energy demand in buildings by 30% to 80%. Investment in building energy efficiency will lead to significant savings that will help offset incremental costs, providing a quick return on investment. Also, because existing buildings perform far below efficiency potentials in general, there are enormous opportunities for reducing energy consumption. Meanwhile, due to population growth and increasing urbanization, a new construction market is growing in developing countries, where construction activities account for up to 40% of GDP and provide opportunities for adopting energy efficient technologies.

UN Buildings Day

The buildings sector can play a critical role in mitigating climate change by reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions. Consequently, for the first time in the history of climate negotiations, a Buildings Day will be held on December 3, 2015 at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris. This meeting is a mandate from the Lima-Paris Action Agenda of 2014, and it aims to discuss ways to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C to 2°C. The Buildings Day at COP21 will showcase actions already taken by the buildings industry and will serve as an opportunity to encourage communications, collaboration, and implementation among various stakeholders.

In addition, a Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction consisting of governments, companies, financial institutions, organizations, academia, associations, professionals, and user networks will officially launch on that day. By putting the buildings and construction sector on the below 2°C path, the alliance commits to helping countries realize their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, which are essential drivers for achieving the ambitious global climate goal.


Fires and Floodwaters Open Paths to Permeable Pavement

— October 14, 2015

With many wildfires across North America raging out of control this summer and fall, it seems like Smokey the Bear should be feeling safe in his career choices. Entire towns burned to the ground, as well as popular massage retreats in California, allow the bear’s fire safety message to resonate. However, as the summer wildfire season begins its transition into golden autumn, we are left with thousands of acres of barren woods.

The aftermath of forest fires can devastate not only forests, but the cities downstream. Preventing these fires is becoming increasingly difficult, so dealing with this aftermath becomes our next challenge. Following the devastating complete burnout of a wildfire, an entire ecosystem is altered. Once-rich soil becomes hydrophobic, allowing rainfall to flow freely across it. Trees and grasses, once capturing rainfall and slowing its flow, are gone. Rainfall runs off at alarming rates, causing devastating effects. And with this rainfall comes many contaminants, from ash and heavy metals to animal and human waste.

Wildfires are increasing in number and severity. Since 1960, there have been 7 years during which more than 8 million acres burned—all of them after 2000. With the worsening fire situation comes an increasing need to deal with consequences. Unimpeded rainfall that occurs after wildfires can cause or worsen flooding events, such as the Boulder flood of 2013, which followed wildfires the previous summer. It can increase water damage to communities devastated by fires, and the flow of contaminants into drinking water sources poses an additional challenge for water treatment plants. For example, the Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado was filled with heavy organic material and ash contamination following fires in 2012. This affected both water quality and hydraulics of the river, as volume was significantly increased. The city installed a multi-parameter water quality sonde to alert the treatment plant of any significant turbidity changes following storm events, so that they could switch their intake to a different water source. Eventually, the city constructed a presedimentation basin to help mitigate the impacts of the fire on their drinking water. Following the King Fire in California last year, residents in the Eldorado National Forest watershed worried that February rains would bring high sediment deposits in the water supply. In April, Placer County discovered several landslides, products of the King Fire, which filled reservoirs with mud. Remediation of these slides involved shutting down water intake facilities and dredging the reservoir, with a price tag well over $3 million. A simple filtration system for stormwater could help prevent these massive sediment deposits downstream of forest fires.

Dealing with the Aftermath

Flood mitigation can also be achieved in part through permeable pavement when placed in city streets located downstream of floodwaters. This product allows water to penetrate to the soil below, not running off and collecting in basements and overflowing containment basins. In addition, it provides some filtration, as sediment-laden water flows through the porous concrete and the gravel beneath. Permeable pavement costs can vary based on a variety of factors, including location, labor price, and contractor experience. However, increasing interest and investment by cities is driving the cost down rapidly. Chicago, as part of its Green Alley initiative, saw the costs of permeable pavement drop from $145 to $45 per cubic yard just 1 year after installation. Many other local governments are investing in this flood mitigation strategy, including New Hampshire, Philadelphia, and California.

With fires raging out of control and flood waters rising, drinking water contaminants and municipal damage are imminent. Installing pervious pavement is just one way that cities are combatting the after-effects of natural disasters.


China and America: Hope for the Climate Change Cause?

— October 14, 2015

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September 2015, the agenda included serious discussions involving cybertheft, territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea, and human rights in Tibet. Though President Xi and President Obama reached a “common understanding” on these issues (however warily), the two presidents came to a stronger agreement on climate change action.

In November 2014, the two presidents committed to targets reducing their respective nations’ carbon emissions. President Xi announced a plan stating that China’s carbon dioxide emissions would hit their peak around 2030, and President Obama pledged that the United States would cut emissions 26% by 2025 from 2005 levels, which is in line with a pledge he made regarding U.S. carbon emissions in 2009 with the United Nations (UN). The figure below displays the two presidents’ goals alongside historical carbon emissions levels.


United States and Chinese November 2014 Emission Goals

Paige Blog Chart(Sources: The New York Times, U.S. Energy Information Administration)

These goals provide some confidence for reaching a new international climate treaty at the UN climate summit in Paris this December, where American and Chinese emissions reduction commitments are anticipated to be a major part of the deal.

The September discussion on climate change between the two presidents resulted in steps for moving forward with these emissions goals, boosting optimism surrounding the climate summit. Both Obama and Xi have signed a joint vision ahead of the meeting, and Xi announced that China would launch a national carbon cap and trade system in 2017, which will build on seven regional pilot markets already in operation. China will also be adopting a green dispatch approach to its electricity supply, which will enable the country’s electricity generation to reach a 20% share of renewables by 2030. Additionally, China will set aside $3.1 billion in a fund to help developing countries fight climate change. As part of the deal, the United States plans to reduce carbon emissions from electric power plants by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030, which is in line with both President Obama’s pledge in late 2014 and his previous pledge in 2009. However, Obama’s goal will be tested when a new president takes office following the November 2016 election cycle.

Currently, China holds the record as the largest emitter of carbon emissions, producing 29% of the world’s total in 2013. China is followed by the United States with 15%. Scientists now say that the current emissions reduction goals of these two countries will not be enough to prevent an increase in global temperature of 3.6 °F (or 2 °C). Perhaps if the UN’s climate summit can reign in the world’s two largest emitters and push them toward more ambitious goals, there may be more hope for the cause. Better late than never.



World’s Largest Cap and Trade Program in Development

— October 7, 2015

Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced an ambitious vision to implement a market-based cap and trade system to limit China’s emissions from its largest sectors. The announcement was made jointly with U.S. President Barack Obama as both countries prepare for the Global Climate Agreement in December. The cap and trade system will initially encourage emissions reductions in the following industries: power generation, iron and steel, chemicals, and building materials (such as cement, papermaking, and non-ferrous metals).

While specifics to China’s program have not been released, a typical cap and trade system operates as follows:

  • An annual nationwide limit is set for maximum allowable emissions. This is typically capped with the intent to reduce overall emissions from 5% to 15% compared to the previous year.
  • Individual emitters will be allowed an annual allowance of emissions totaling the nation’s cap.
  • Emitters are penalized if they exceed their allowances.
  • If an emitter has excess allowances at the end of the year, it can sell extra allowances to over polluters that want to avoid penalties.

Generally, the system allows companies to plan ahead for annual reduction targets. Companies are incentivized to sell excess allowances and are punished for excessive emissions. China also intends to generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The carbon tax will help promote investment in renewable technologies and incentivize industries to help achieve this target.

Emissions Reduction Potential

China is currently the world’s largest emitter of CO2. In 2013, China emitted 10.3 billion tons of CO2, which accounted for 29% of global CO2 emissions. If China can reduce its annual CO2 emissions by 15%, the reduction would total more than the annual CO2 emissions from all of South and Central America.

Current Status of Global Emissions Trading Programs

The cap and trade system has been applied in many locations around the world with mixed results. The European Union implemented the first phase of its Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) among 27 countries in 2005. The ultimate target of this program is a 20% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 and 50% reduction by 2050. However, initial phases of the program did not achieve significant reductions and lacked control in distributing carbon allowances. Modifications for phase 2 and 3 aim to further reduce emissions and to manage auctioning of carbon allowances.

In the United States, emissions trading was utilized in the late 1980s to reduce impacts of acid rain. Emissions trading became law as part of the Clean Air Act of 1990. The Acid Rain Program has been effective in reducing the total amount of sulfur dioxide emissions to a 50% of 1980 levels by 2010. The current Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap and trade program is effective in 10 states and allows some states to auction all of their emissions allowances. In the first 2 years with the auction program, six states raised $38.5 million and $106.5 million dollars. The states and electricity utilities intend to invest funds for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to further reduce fossil fuel-based emissions.

How China decides to structure its cap and distribute emissions allowances will be critical to achieve significant cuts in emissions and to promote investments in efficiency and renewable technologies. Regardless, China’s emissions trading system should be an important step toward reducing global carbon emissions and increasing investment in renewable technologies.


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