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Radical Confidence: When's the Right Time to Act on Climate Change?

We had dinner plans with friends last night here in New York and I went online to check the weather and saw that there was a tornado watch for the area -- the one that hit Springfield, Mass., yesterday was in the same cluster of storm cells that ultimately missed New York–- so the timing of activities is on my mind.

In the environment, as in business, timing is critical. This is perhaps no more true than in the issue of anthropogenic climate change. A pair of articles this week on the GreenerBuildings.com sister site, ClimateBiz.com discuss the alarming news on carbon emissions and their impacts on cities. Tilde Herrera covers the International Energy Agency's recent report that 2010 had the highest CO2 emissions in history. The IEA warns that, at current rates, the 2°C temperature increase that most experts consider the threshold of unmanageable climate change, will be considered a floor for potential future temperatures, rather than the ceiling.

Cities represent approximately 70 percent of CO2 emissions worldwide and buildings represent between 65 percent and 70 percent of their CO2 emissions, and in some cases -- such as New York-- this figure can reach 80 percent. The other particularly alarming piece of the IEA report was the fact that given the planned and current infrastructure development trends, the emissions in 2020 are almost locked in.

Not surprisingly, the majority of growth in emissions is in developing countries. However, per capita emissions in these nations remain far below those of the Western world. Compounding this challenge with the declared intention of Germany and Japan to gradually eliminate their use of nuclear power, the magnitude of the job ahead of us can only be considered daunting.

Connor Riffle writes about the impacts of climate-changed weather on cities, both present and forecast. We are already experiencing the effects of drought and floods, as well as the tragedy of severe weather such as tornadoes. In spite of this sobering report and the severe impacts on our quality of life, there is hope. As Jonathan Bardelline reports, the C40 cities -- with a combined population approaching that of the United States and a comparable carbon footprint -- have developed an extensive action plan of measures that have been implemented to combat or mitigate the impacts of global warming. These more than 4,700 activities, are compiled in the report "Climate Action in Megacities" and include green buildings as a key component of these strategies, as well as many of the smart location and linkage elements encouraged by LEED.

Although these thousands of measures are being implemented in one form or another in one or more locations, they need to be dramatically accelerated if we're going to make the difference we need to make, in the time we need to make it.

You see, if we accelerate emissions reductions early and then gradually move toward the nearly 80 percent target for reductions by 2050 that most scientists agree is necessary to avoid unmanageable climate change, we end up emitting significantly less total CO2 than if we start slow and accelerate later.

If we look at total carbon emissions as something like a credit card balance, clearly it makes more sense to reduce the principal as much as possible early on, so that the total paid is significantly less than if we covered merely the minimum or pursued a gradually accelerating reduction plan.

With building technologies, this means that innovations such as LEDs should be more aggressively encouraged through rebates and standards. Marc Gunther's piece on whether LEDs have hit the mainstream (he argues yes, in certain applications) raises this issue of when to adopt such new technologies.

There is an interesting quote in the article about being on the "wrong edge" of the technology curve regarding whether to adopt LEDs. The question in my mind is whether we can actually afford to let markets for some of these advanced technologies work at their "normal" pace or whether an accelerated program -- most likely with government support -- is necessary. I'll take a ready-fire-aim approach any day.

This week's Look-Grandpa-I-picked-up-the-$20-bill-you said-was-fake-but-it's-real! award goes to Bank of America, which is putting its money (this and that of other people) where its mouth is regarding climate change by committing to a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is the organization cleaning up its own carbon footprint, but it is also looking at how it can reduce the carbon footprint of communities in which it lends.  Over 10 percent of the bank's corporate workspace is certified to LEED standards, including its LEED-Platinum showcase in New York City, One Bryant Park. The bank hopes to certify 20 percent of its corporate real estate portfolio through its environmental performance program.

BofA also is funding low-cost loans and grants to community development financial institutions -– to the tune of $55 million -- to strengthen their energy efficiency and green building programs and to help buydown first costs of investing in retrofit projects. The potential leverage of these community-oriented lending programs is huge. If everyone pitches in, the planet we save may be our own.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Tony the Misfit.

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