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ICYMI: Energy efficiency gets shoved into the spotlight in U.S., U.K.

<p>Our latest roundup of sustainability news: The good and bad of energy policy, how driverless cars will reshape cities, and Google&#39;s climate-skeptic misstep.</p>

Greetings, readers! It has been a busy couple of weeks -- so much so that it's hard to know where to begin in recapping the happenings in sustainability news. Fortunately, the most interesting stories seemed to fall into just a couple of categories: Developments for smart cities and attempts to improve -- or inhibit -- energy efficiency in buildings. And of course, don't forget the must-read odds 'n' sods, which this week includes news about Google's ill-advised fundraiser for a climate change denier and Costa Rica's low-carbon farming successes.

Energy efficiency in the crosshairs

Over the past week or so, energy efficiency legislation has been targeted -- for good and bad -- in both the U.S. and the U.K. Most recently:

• Construction firm Skanska yesterday announced that it would be the latest company to quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this time over the trade association's lobbying to repeal the U.S. government's requirement to build to LEED certification. Skanska objects to the Chamber's position, noting that it would "effectively ban the future use of LEED for government buildings [and] threatens to halt years of progress in energy-efficient and environmentally responsible construction."

• At the same time, the American Gas Association is pushing hard for a bill that would repeal the requirement for federal buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. Inside Climate News has much more, including details of the green groups that are surprising supporters of the AGA-supported legislation.

• Meanwhile, even as backward-looking elements of society push back against energy efficiency, a new report from the Department of Energy warns that climate change will more regularly, and more severely, disrupt energy supplies in the U.S. It's going to be even more important to make every watt count in the coming, warmer world.

• In the U.K., the government this week published an energy-efficiency proposal that would require large companies to conduct energy audits. If enacted -- the proposal was put forth by the Labour Party, which is hoping to take the reins of the government in the U.K.'s next election -- the plan could lead to as much as £1.9 billion (US $2.7 billion) in savings from energy efficiency.

Lightbulb photo by Robert_S on Shutterstock.

• While not tied to the Labour proposal, has news about the city of Cambridge's plans to invest £1 billion (US $1.5 billion) in a city-wide energy-efficiency retrofit. The retrofit project aims to update 40,000 buildings in the city that dates back to medieval times, with potential energy savings of more than US $2 billion, while also making Cambridge the first U.K. city to meet the country's goals of reducing emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Smart cities get a brighter spot on the map

• Microsoft is applying the lessons it learned from turning its 500-acre Redmond, Wash., headquarters into a smart city of the future with a new pilot program to put it smart building technology in four downtown Seattle buildings, with a goal of reducing energy use by between 10 percent and 25 percent.

• The Energy Collective points us to a VOA report about NASA's Megacities Carbon Project, in which the cities of Los Angeles and Paris are beginning to measure and track the cities' footprint of three greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. Measurement, of course, being the first step toward managing and reducing those emissions...

• In slightly more pie-in-the-sky news, a paper published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials reveals the results of photocatalytic pavement blocks that purify the air, or more colloquially, smog-eating pavement. The pavement has reduced smog by as much as 50 percent during its year-long pilot study in Hengelo, Netherlands. The city of Chicago last year also paved a 2-mile stretch of town with smog-eating pavement.

• The New York Times has a think-piece about how the onset of driverless cars will change cities: Perhaps most notable is how automated cars will eliminate the need to circle the block to find a parking space, a fact that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blames for almost 1 billion miles of wasted driving every year.

• As smart cities take off, and the Internet of Things becomes more and more a part of daily life, we will see "smart" everywhere. With the release of its new Energy Star requirements for refrigerators and freezers, the EPA has acknowledged the coming of the smart, connected feature: For the first time, Energy Star requirements encourage manufacturers to include smart features in appliances, making it easier for buyers to reduce the energy used in their kitchens.

(Of course, if this article by Stacey Higginbotham in GigaOm is right, you may not want a slew of connected appliances. Imagine getting chirped at by your fridge, freezer, dishwasher, laundry machine and so on, three or four times a week!)

Odds 'n' Sods

Apple has announced plans to build its third solar farm, this one outside Reno, Nev., to power its data center there with clean energy. Which is good because, if Apple's cloud services get anywhere near the traction that Facebook has, its carbon footprint would be through the roof. The social network announced that its 2012 emissions were up 35 percent over 2011 as it grows its user base.

• Did you hear about how Google threw a fundraiser for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the Senate's most notorious climate change denier? Even though the company is only playing business-as-usual (Google has a huge data center in Oklahoma, and the company wants Inhofe to help protect the company's interests) and not supporting Inhofe's pro-carbon pollution politics, it turns out that a bunch of Google users are not particularly pleased.

• The FDA has announced a ban on BPA in infant formula packages, which is of course good news -- except that there's an easy alternative for manufacturers to use that could be just as toxic as BPA.

• The government of Costa Rica, already aiming to be the world's first carbon-neutral country, is also leading the way on low-carbon agriculture, and showing that climate-friendly farming is also highly productive.

• Finally, I couldn't make up a story more telling than this: The second place winner of the recent Young Conservative Thought Leaders writing competition, put on by George Mason University's Energy & Enterprise Institute, is titled "How the GOP Could Win the Climate Debate." It was written by a staffer for a Republican in the House of Representatives -- and was published under a pseudonym to protect the writer and his Republican boss. Oh, the times we live in...

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