How can I make a real difference?
In my day-to-day professional work I write for engineers and architects and government planners and fleet managers. I talk about success stories involving electric vehicle fleets and conversions, energy positive buildings and passive houses, new models for governments, utilities and banks to fund and accommodate the transition to cleaner technology, improvements in storage and wind turbine maintenance strategies, and so on. Detail stuff.
When the weekend gets here I have a chance to rise out of the weeds and think about simpler things; in fact, bigger things.
These days I keep thinking about about a particular date in early October when my book will finally come out, and my hope that it might help people with the big things, such as answering a question that now seems to be on everyone’s mind: “How can I make a real difference?”
Or “Can we make make enough impact in the time we’ve got left?” Nobody can answer that one, but because we’re humans, with only one real home, we know we have to try.
What's the highest priority?
The book is about priorities and planning and Top 10 climate action lists for ordinary people, but the reality is different. Individual commitment is great, but in our situation we have to collaborate. We have to get on the same page, focus on a few key areas first, and work together to hit the tipping points in those areas asap. If you’ve read me before, you know I’m about to point out that buildings, vehicles and power plants create about 75% of global C02.
Here’s what you haven’t read before: I’m worried. That’s right, Mr. sunny optimist, success-story, solutions guy, is worried.
I’m not worried about power plants. The world’s investors have already passed judgement on coal, gas and nuclear power. They’ve decided to invest instead in solar, wind, storage and smart grid. That’s happening in every state, province, country at a torrid pace. That’s economics. You would only go backwards on that one if you felt like going bankrupt. Even the oil companies are clumsily trying to reinvent themselves.
I’m not worried about electric vehicles. May not have said this even two years ago, but there’s just no way to argue with worldwide sales of electric personal vehicles, buses and fleet vehicles. It’s the world’s biggest environmental story. Transportation is changing so fast, we environmentalists don’t need to do much to help continue the momentum, except keep telling stories about people who save 80%, or several hundred dollars a month by avoiding the gas station.
The definitive conversation
It’s buildings. I’m worried about buildings. They’re the biggest contributors, with the double-energy-whammey of electricity gobbling and gas-guzzling heat.
I write more about clean energy buildings in my daily work than anything else I do. I pride myself in being on top of every single hopeful sign, and there are many. Dozens of proven ways to make buildings clean, thousands of zero-energy, energy positive or passive house projects being built all over the place. Most of the national, state and city building guidelines in the world are moving toward zero energy requirements. All very hopeful.
But the elephant in the room is the slow pace of actual change. Yes, the statistics say that buildings are far more efficient than ever before. Yes, we have all the zero energy for new construction code requirements coming. But the biggest developers, and not just a few, are still finding ways to get themselves LEED designations while installing massive gas boiler systems in brand new mass scale buildings. There’s only one word for this: Greenwashing.
Sadly, the so-called green code establishment, some trade organizations, and supposedly green city planning departments all over North America are letting them get away with this. This game-the-system definition of a “green” building is nothing short of BS and will not help our planet.
If I thought it was a few isolated cases I would keep my mouth shut and look forward to a brighter future.
Let me tell you about what economists and historians say about the character and record of the construction industry. These comments apply to every single country on Earth and every time period since we erected our earliest shacks: The key decision-makers in construction do not value industry improvement. Statistically, construction does not increase efficiency. Construction is usually one of the biggest businesses in a given region, and it only changes in isolated ways at the whim of the wealthiest men in each town. Visionary architects and ingenious engineers strive continuously to make the construction industry better, but they rarely make the final decisions.
Three things need to happen:
Energy upgrades - The single biggest challenge
I’m even more concerned about the inadequacy of existing building upgrades. For me, this is the definitive climate change conversation of out time. If you want to rise out of all the confusing detail I’ve just written and talk about the biggest ideas and the simplest priorities for today’s climate action plan, you will talk about existing building energy upgrades.
It’s the answer to the question, “What’s our single highest priority?” It’s the answer to the question: “How can I make a real difference?” The way we can make a real difference is to quickly bring our existing buildings as close to zero energy, as possible, by eliminating fossil fuel use. It’s not complicated or even difficult.
The amount of the commitment to these retrofits must increase. Abuses similar to those described above, also happening in this area, must end. “High efficiency” gas furnaces are misleading, delusional, and defeat the purpose.
Statistically, I’m told, we now rebuild all our structures about every 30 years. It’s probably more like 50 years in many places, depending on the whims of the wealthiest men in town. That means in any given year, 98% of our buildings will still be here next year, pumping C02 into the atmosphere.
Governments must get their heads around this reality and take it seriously, because in the modern world, governments are the wealthiest men in town. Governments must summon all their energy positive building experts (the ones not using fossil fuels) and create huge spending programs that make it easy for homeowners and building owners to fix their building envelopes and replace their gas appliances with HRVs, air source heat pumps, geothermal, solar, electricity storage, (also rainwater and grey water systems).
When I say ‘big spending programs,’ the politicos make shake their heads wistfully, but most of this can now be done without huge government budgets and burdening non-participating taxpayers. Because when most people today ask, “How can I make a real difference?” they’re perfectly willing to substitute big utility bills with a period of loan repayments. Excellent finance (not grant) models are working beautifully right now in numerous jurisdictions.
Governments, it's your move
Addressing existing building energy upgrades (and net-zero greenwashing) is indeed the definitive climate change conversation of out time. And as is so often the case with climate change, proven technical and creative financing solutions already exist to make it work. We simply must choose to ask the question: “How can I make a real difference?”
Author of 150+ feature articles on clean energy. His new book will be published in October of 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield in Washington DC. It contains clean energy solutions and Top 10 lists of climate actions for all of us. Would you like to see your list?
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