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USGBC Green Building Policy Outlook Panel, A Moment for Optimism and Broad-based Support

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USGBC Green Building Policy Outlook, A Moment for Optimism and Broad-based Support - 1

On December 10, The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) gathered a panel of policymakers and business leaders to consider the current green building policy outlook in the context of pandemic and the incoming Biden Administration.  Panelists included USGBC’s Senior Policy Counsel, Elizabeth Beardsley, Representative Kathy Castor (D-Florida; Chair, House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis), Representative Peter Welch (D-Vermont; Member of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce), and Don Anderson, Operating Partner and Chief Sustainability Officer, Blackstone, and GBCI Board Treasurer.  

As Elizabeth Beardsley noted in kicking off the call, we are clearly at a tipping point, not just in terms of the clear evidence of climate change, but with 2/3 of Americans starting to feel the related impacts and supporting some type of action.  All panelists clearly agree that buildings consume about 40% of US energy and generate over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore must be a part of a comprehensive climate solution that includes supporting economic recovery, improving health, increasing energy efficiency, addressing the climate crisis, and forging a new and better path to a clean energy economy.  Additionally, we must pay attention to the fact that low income residents spend too great a percentage of their income on energy and often live in less efficient and less healthy homes.  

Representative Castor reviewed key points of the incoming administration's sustainable climate, energy and infrastructure plans, which include:

  • Cut the carbon footprint of our national building stock in half by 2035 (and netzero by 2050)
  • Weatherizing 2 million homes within 4 years
  • Retrofitting 4 million nonresidential buildings 
  • Support the construction of 15 million sustainable homes and housing units
  • Creating at least 1 million related construction and manufacturing jobs
  • Providing low cost financing to upgrade and electrify home energy appliances and install more efficient windows, which will also cut home energy bills
  • Funding cash rebates to spur the building retrofit and energy-efficient manufacturing supply chains 
  • Repair the building code process with the establishment of building performance standards nationwide
  • Establish funding mechanisms for states, cities, and tribes to adopt building codes and labor standards

According to Representative Castor, the House has been active and has included significant attention to buildings in a “Solving the Climate Crisis” 538-page Action Plan.  Even the plans highlights are pretty exciting - rapid deployment of wind, solar energy, and other zero-carbon energy sources, more clean energy technologies including electric vehicles, and more clean energy jobs.  A key question is how we as a nation can scale up energy efficiency and GHG reductions when energy efficiency can be a tough sell at times even when it pays for itself.  (We would argue that education is an important part of the solution!)  Representative Castor makes the point that the federal government must be a strong partner to the states in assuring job creation, equity, affordability, health and resilience benefits as we “build back better.”

Representative Welch correctly pointed out that the last four years has certainly been a challenge to say the least, but there has been some action and the states have also been taking a leading role in the vacuum left by the administration’s denial of the threat of climate change.  Representative Welch believes the foundation already set is strong enough to form the basis of strong and swift action in the next  Congress.  He highlighted the need to address the stress right now on rural economies and points out that the Biden plan has the potential to be one of the biggest job creation programs ever created, and also an intensely local opportunity.  Talent will be needed in each locality in building and related trades such as plumbing, electrical.  In addition to the jobs created, people will be able to save money and live in tighter, more comfortable houses.  There’s no reason to say no to saving money, creating jobs, and improving our environment, health, and comfort.  

Don Anderson reflected on the transition from decades of voluntary market transformation through labeling and certifications to a period where change will now be more regulated.  He pointed out that the US green building infrastructure and data are more mature in some ways than in other countries, and perhaps more mature than we sometimes perceive.  Don reviewed not only the challenge of transforming entire commercial portfolios, but also the incredible effort demanded to manage building systems and energy use and control during the unprecedented pandemic emergency.  The COVID-19 crisis forced all property and building managers to leverage performance data in ways they might not have thought of before, and to make unprecedented changes in the mechanical room and elsewhere as a result.  The good news is that investors and tenants now know to ask for more energy efficient and healthier buildings, and the data is a bit addictive - so there is no turning back. This said, Blackstone and other firms will be looking for consistency in policies, and also some flexibility in how to meet goals.  

What’s the election impact on the outlook for building policy?  According to Representative Welch, “We now have a chance.”  The representative talked of the energy of young people and “having the wind at our backs now, and it’s hard not to feel this is true when we agree with him that it has felt like a 4-year environmental)(and green building)” shutdown” effectively.  According to the Representative and in line with what Don Anderson suggested, “What we propose now must be practical.”  Representative Welch sees setting goals but allowing flexibility, and not micromanaging exactly how results are delivered.  He also points out that the legislation will be beneficial whether red or blue, in a nod to the fact that good climate and building related legislation is really a win-win. 

To get this support, Representative Castor agrees we must have bipartisan support, and both Representatives seem fairly confident that this is possible.  She makes a good point that the world will be watching, and that this also means we need to set more ambitious national commitments.  Especially after seeming to walk away, or face it, walking away from our former leadership role.  

This call was a forward-looking optimistic moment for the green building industry, even in a time that is clearly proving challenging for everyone.  The next Administration is making solid and bold plans, and they will be needed for a sustainable economic recovery that is also just. Combining all of the panelists' thoughts, 4 points come to mind about the outlook for green building policy:

  1. This is a time for optimism
  2. The opportunity for wins for building occupants, workers, and the climate is almost unbelievably large
  3. The world will be watching (and this is a good thing)
  4. We know how to do this 

A 5th point would be that we must build broad-based support.  But if all of the above are true, it seems this is the only outcome that can make sense.  Leading businesses have every reason to work with policymakers. 

If we had a 6th point to make, it’s that education and outreach will also be key.  We must bring this optimism and information outside of updates like these - we need to explain that people and businesses will save energy, and that homes will be more comfortable and healthy with incentives and upgrades.  We have to rise above negative resistance to change that can really be beneficial both nationally and locally.  This said, the reporting on bipartisan activity certainly gives one hope after the past four years.  

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