Climate Change, Part 5: It’s All About the Straws, Isn’t It?

Posted On: 
Jan 25, 2019
Climate Change, Part 5: It’s All About the Straws, Isn’t It?

This is this the final installment to the Climate Change series I’ve been writing for the last month or so, based on Bill Gates’s blog post. Since I’m wrapping it up, it seems timely to explain why I referenced straws as the title. My youngest daughter is an environmental champion and has been since she joined the Green Team at her elementary school in 3rd grade nearly seven years ago. My older son, however, is skeptical that anything we do as humans effects the environment, positively or negatively. So, when my daughter purchased glass straws for everyone in the family, it began a debate about whether or not ending the use of plastic straws really helps the climate or the world in any way. My son made the point that if plastic straws were eliminated from the world all together, climate change would still happen. He was right. If we focus so hard on the “little” things, the big things aren’t handled the way they need to be. I realized we need to approach climate change from multiple directions. So no, it’s not all about the straws. But it’s a start!

Previous posts discussed Gates’ article which lists electricity, agriculture, manufacturing , transportation, and our final one, buildings, as the grand challenges stopping climate change (there is a miscellaneous category equaling 10% in this list that is a collection of multiple things that don’t qualify for any one category). He says that so many people often think of cars or electricity as the main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, when in fact, “Making electricity is responsible for only 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions each year. So even if we could generate all the electricity we need without emitting a single molecule of greenhouse gases (which we’re a long way from doing), we would cut total emissions by just a quarter. To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to get to zero net greenhouse gas emissions in every sector of the economy within 50 years—and as the IPCC recently found, we need to be on a path to doing it in the next 10 years. That means dealing with electricity, and the other 75% too. Where do greenhouse gas emissions come from? I like to break it down into five main categories—what I call the grand challenges in stopping climate change…”

How Buildings Factor in to Climate Change

The built environment is where architects and designers get to have the most impact, and also support the importance of LEED certification for building projects. According to Gates, buildings contribute 6% to the grand challenges he lists. He says, “Do you live or work in a place with air conditioning? The refrigerant inside your AC unit is a greenhouse gas. In addition, it takes a lot of energy to run air conditioners, heaters, lights, and other appliances. Things like more-efficient windows and insulation would help. This area will be more important over the next few decades as the global population moves to cities. The world’s building stock will double in area by 2060. That’s like adding another New York City every month for 40 years.” Different sources vary on how high of a percentage buildings contribute, depending on how many ways it is divided and what sources are being cited. But according to a 2015 article from the Los Angeles Times, buildings are responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse emissions, and most of the emissions come from everyday needs like warming and cooling our environment; lighting; cooking; domestic duties; and leisure activities like watching TV, surfing the internet, and playing music.

It’s not just how we exist in our buildings, though. It’s how the buildings are designed and built. An article from the Associate of Architects (AIA) states that buildings emit nearly half of the carbon dioxide in the U.S. annually, and “Because CO2 traps solar energy in the atmosphere, thereby heating the planet, it is the chief agent of climate change, making buildings—and by association, the architecture profession—profoundly responsible.” The AIA article presents a grim picture for earth if things don’t change but is full of excellent information, so I highly encourage reading the whole thing.

So, What Can Be Done?

There are already programs developed to try to manage the effect the built industry has on the climate. Most architects are familiar with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which is the most widely used green building rating system in the world, applies to a wide variety of building projects, and provides a “framework that project teams can apply to create healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings”. More info on how LEED can help fight climate change can be found on the USGBC. But there are more programs available to build more sustainably:

Climate Change, Part 5: It’s All About the Straws, Isn’t It?

•The 2030 Challenge, which offers a plan that works toward carbon-neutral buildings, building products, and cities, by the year 2030.

•The Passive House Planning Package, which is a planning tool for energy efficiency. An explanation of Passive House can be found on a previous blog.

•The Living Building Challenge from the International Living Future Institute. This challenge claims to be the world’s most rigorous proven performance standard for buildings. It describes itself as a “green building certification program and sustainable design framework that visualizes the ideal for the built environment.”

It probably doesn’t need to be stated, but personally, each one of us can contribute positively to this category by using less energy in our living environment; using heating and cooling options other than heat and A/C; and being proactive about the daily choices we make in our built environment. And if you’re building a home, think about the many different ways to approach the design. These tips are presented by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute and geared toward builders and architects, but they are of benefit to anyone thinking about building and renovating:

•Incorporating the most efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, along with operations and maintenance of such systems to assure optimum performance

•Using state of the art lighting and optimizing daylighting

•Using recycled content building and interior materials

•Reducing potable water usage

•Using renewable energy

•Implementing proper construction waste management

•Siting the building near public transportation

•Using locally produced building materials

The Bottom Line

We can no longer think about catastrophic climate change as something in the future. It’s happening now, it’s progressing quickly, and it’s the fault of humans. Gates’ blog post was the catalyst to dig deeper into the causes of climate change, and I am left with an urgency I previously lacked. If you, too, have the same urgency, and want more information on sustainable building, there are tons of resources available on our GreenCE website. One way for everyone to get involved is to become a LEED Green Associate, and the process can be started by taking our free LEED Exam Prep course. Additionally, we offer numerous free courses that are available for informational purposes only or can be taken for various CE credits. What do you think—is the contributions from buildings and the built environment really as low as 6% like Gates states, or do you think it is higher like other sources site?

For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please contact Brad Blank