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Green Builds a Community

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is a nonprofit organization working to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. Recently, the USGBC brought together 22,835 individuals from corporations, builders, universities, government agencies, and other nonprofit organizations for its annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo.

This year's host city was Chicago, quickly becoming as known for growing over 3 million square feet of green roofs as it is for mayoral dynasties (by the end of his term in 2010, Richard M. Daley is slated to be the longest serving mayor in Chicago's history, a record currently held by his father who spent 21 years in the office). Late in the week, we met with the founder of a large commercial and residential real estate development firm (and friend of former President Clinton). He noted that since founding his company approximately 45 years ago, the entire skyline of Chicago that you see today had been built.

This made us think that the choice of Chicago to host Greenbuild was even more appropriate, as the changes that will occur for many cities will roll out at an even quicker pace as they take the lead in addressing climate change issues at a local level (for more on how cities are addressing climate change, see my article "A Tale of Four Cities").

Green Buildings for Everyone Within a Generation

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that the commercial and residential building sector accounts for 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States per year, more than any other sector. Most of these emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide heating, cooling and lighting, and to power appliances and electrical equipment. Buildings consume approximately 40 percent of the energy and 70 percent of the electricity used in the United States annually.

In order to decrease the environmental impact of the building sector's operations, the USGBC established the LEED Rating System to promote a holistic approach to building design and construction. Under the system, a series of points are awarded based upon sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Noting the success of this program, the USGBC has reported that the average LEED-certified building uses 32 percent less electricity, 26 percent less natural gas, and 36 percent less total energy.

With the backdrop of rapid growth (attendance grew over 50 percent since last year's Greenbuild in Denver), USGBC President and co-founder Rick Fedrizzi took the stage at this year's event to recount the past year's successes and challenge the audience to take a greater leadership role in terms of addressing climate change. The USGBC now has over 12,000 member organizations and 3.2 billion square feet of LEED buildings around the world. While over 40,000 professionals are LEED accredited, 50 more take the exam every business day.

Acknowledging how quickly the organization is increasing in scale and influence, Mr. Fedrizzi laid out even larger goals for the future. Beyond community, beyond affordable housing, beyond green schools, the organization has set a goal of "green buildings for everyone within a generation." Acknowledging that achieving this requires more than the efforts of builders and architects, Mr. Fedrizzi called on industry, government agencies, financial institutions, community organizations, and others to strive toward that goal. As one part of its program to achieve that goal, the USGBC announced a new website -- Greenbuild365 -- to educate a broader audience as green building becomes more mainstream.

The Platinum President

In introducing the keynote speaker and former President of the United States, Mr. Fedrizzi noted that "more than 14 years ago about 60 idealistic environmental and building industry professionals came together under the leadership of Mark Ginsberg and the U.S. Department of Energy … to help Green the White House … an initiative spearheaded by then-President William J. Clinton. That initiative was arguably the galvanizing moment of awareness and opportunity for the leaders of the sustainability movement … and helped to launch not only the green building movement … but the U.S. Green Building Council as well."

He then presented Mr. Clinton with a Platinum plaque for his Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, which had previously been certified LEED Silver. The 42nd President of the United States appeared genuinely surprised, but it wasn't enough to put him at a loss for words. In mentioning the Kyoto Protocol, he mused that it was the first bill to ever be defeated before being presented to Congress. He then went on to note that the media at the end of this year will be filled with stories about how many of the countries who adopted the Kyoto Protocol will not meet their commitments. Further, while "the sale's been made" in terms of human-caused climate change, it's important to now prove that the initiatives we must undertake to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 aren't seen as "a big bottle of castor oil."

In response to this, Mr. Clinton sees "the biggest economic opportunity since World War II." Citing U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's report earlier this year on job creation as a result of beating Kyoto targets and similar statistics from Denmark and Sweden, the former president presented a scenario of jobs creation and increased standards of living for countries that embrace these new opportunities and industries.

He described the Clinton Foundation's Climate Change Initiative as taking a business-oriented approach to fighting against climate change, and one example he noted was his foundation's Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program. The program provides cities and their private building owners with access to funds to retrofit existing buildings with more energy efficient products. This program provides immediate funding and has been developed with industry and financial institutions providing incentives for the retrofits. Looking out further, he predicted even greater opportunities.

"In 18 months, you will have meetings where you will be racing to see who can produce the most effective energy positive buildings. We're going to completely turn this thing around. Within five years, I predict to you … buildings will be just like cell phones, we're going to decentralize everything … we will be using the grid only for those things that are absolutely necessary … We have no idea where this adventure will take us … we are dealing with unlimited potential and we have no idea what we can do because we just got started."

Perhaps the most important point the former President made was that "we have to keep score and we have to be honest." He noted his foundation's development of a standardized emissions inventory system to help keep that score. While noting that "not everything will work," and that he was "preaching to the saved," he concluded by reminding the audience that "when America is in the solutions business, there's still nobody better … we just need to get the show on the road and ... prove not only to ourselves, but to the entire world that this is not only something we have to do to save the planet for our children and our grandchildren, but it is a staggering economic opportunity."

A Glimpse of the Future

One of the more interesting moments during the opening plenary was the presentation of a LEED Platinum plaque to the Aldo Leopold Foundation (platinum is the highest LEED rating after silver and gold). Aldo Leopold is best described as an ecologist and environmentalist and is considered the father of wildlife management in the United States.

The Aldo Leopold Legacy Center has achieved the highest number of LEED points by any building to date and the Center is one the greenest buildings on the planet as it is a zero net energy building. In fact, as Rick Fedrizzi pointed out, the local utility sends them a check every month. How fast do you think you can get into a zero energy building and start charging your utility for energy? Send me your thoughts at [email protected].

John Davies is vice president of AMR Research's Green Technology Research. For more news on sustainability initiatives, subscribe to AMR Research's free Green Alert.

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