Five trends driving action on sustainability in 2013

After an election year when energy and climate change policies were not central to the national discussion, it may seem interest in sustainability has flagged in the U.S. In fact, the public and private sectors, working together and separately, continue to progress on policies and strategies that support both ecological and economic goals.

This is evident in the commercial property sector. More than 28 billion square feet -- about 40 percent of the country’s inventory -- now use ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager to monitor and report energy performance. LEED-certified properties in the U.S. and 130 other countries topped the 2 billion-square-foot mark this summer, and the U.S. Green Building Council notes that another 2 million square feet is certified each day. On the public-sector side, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans to reduce energy by 20 percent at state-occupied buildings.

The pace of U.S. solar photovoltaic (PV) installations increased by 70 percent in 2012, after doubling in 2010 and again in 2011. About 3.2 gigawatts of PV capacity were added during 2012, bring the U.S. total to 5.9 GW. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports the U.S. is now home to more than 10 percent of all PV installations, up from less than 5 percent in 2010.

But the good news for sustainable development has been tempered by challenges. Solar panel manufacturers have developed so much excess capacity that many firms have had to close their doors despite the strong demand. More corporations than ever are announcing carbon footprint reduction goals and pursuing programs to reduce emissions, but the Carbon Disclosure Project reports few companies are reducing emissions aggressively enough to meet international climate change goals.

The winding road of sustainability progress is illustrated by a U.S. Energy Information Agency report that estimated U.S. CO2 emissions in the first four months of 2012 were the lowest since 1992. That’s the good news. But the drop is credited mainly to utilities replacing coal with less-expensive natural gas, which results in lower CO2 emissions but potentially higher emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas. And natural gas is cheap because of the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which faces controversy as a potential source of groundwater contamination, among other environmental concerns.

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