USGBC National recently contributed to UN Habitat's Building Sustainability Assessment and Benchmarking report. This report covers the impacts of buildings on the environment, especially in regards to climate emissions, discusses the benefits of benchmarking through systems such as LEED, and the political, social, and economic factors impacting the development of building sustainability around the world. Successfully reducing emissions from and creating accurate assessment tools for the built environment will be critical in achieving international climate change mitigation agreements including the Paris Agreement
USGBC has worked diligently to expand LEED awareness and advocate for a safer and cleaner world. At the end of 2016, USGBC released a list of the top countries and regions with total LEED certification outside of the US. This showed that outside of North America, China and Southeast Asia have the most LEED projects followed by Europe, Russia, and Latin America. Northern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia have the next most and leed certified space and Sub-Saharan African, Australia and Oceania make up the rear. China recently surpassed an impressive milestone by certifying over 1,000 LEED buildings and continues to build more. Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO of USGBC and GBCI recently expressed the impressive impact of LEED around the globe and the ever growing number of opportunities for climate change mitigation and sustainable building.
Overall, USGBC continues to promote and advocate for LEED and sustainable building practices at a global level. It supports the UN Habitat’s mission and believes in expanding equitable sustainability throughout communities and societies around the world. Taking a more holistic approach in the over 160 countries with LEED will not only accelerate progress on initiatives like net zero buildings, carbon pricing policies, and climate adaptation, but it will further global understanding of environmental protection and understanding for such policies' lifelong benefits.
As a concerned environmentalist and general lover of history, I have recently taken up reading about the dynamic relationships between humans and the natural world. Last week, I read Richard White’s 1995 book, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, and I was moved by the seeming unending relevance and difficulty in establishing a clear and sustainable relationship with the natural world.
This short yet surprisingly effective environmental history tells the story of the Columbia River from its inception in the early Miocene Epoch until 1995 BCE. White focuses his discussion on the interactions between Northwestern American peoples and their environment during the 19th and 20th centuries and describes how energy, labor, competition, and (in)justice bring people and nature together. He argues that the inevitable interactions between humans and nature have culminated in a misplaced overconfidence in human agency and ability to replace natural systems. Centuries of narrow and exploitative thinking have obfuscated healthier and more holistic interpretations of proper human-nature relationships and created the overworked and transformed Columbia of today. By viewing the Columbia and environment in general as interconnected and interdependent systems instead of as fragmented purposes and parts, society can prevent continued overuse, destruction, and pollution while reducing conflict, ethical injustice and loss of cultural heritage and social wellbeing. This message has a nearly universal application, from USGBC MA’s promotion of integrated green building and the sustainable built environment to the National Park Service’s protection of natural lands and our decisions on what we buy, where we get our food, and how we vote.
From the beginning, White underscores how society has forgotten its close intimacy with nature, especially in regards to the Columbia River and the myriad of services it offers. Early on, he notes how the 258,200 square miles of river watershed create a dynamic energy system that constantly adjusts to “compensate for events that affect [it]”: suggesting that society should follow suit (White 6, 12). Yet many have lacked the heightened awareness necessary for effective adaptation and have experienced serious difficulties in their attempts to conquer or harness the power of the river. White provides an expansive backstory to demonstrate the foolhardy fishing and sailing journeys of newly established white settlers and entrepreneurs looking to exploit the river in the mid 19th century. Despite the many lives lost, white Americans focused on the singular aspects of the river, largely in the form of economic benefits from fishing, and ignored the natural balances and boundaries followed by all other organisms in the area for millions of years; balances understood by Native Americans for centuries were quickly forgotten.
Unsurprisingly, the history of the Columbia has come to depict a classic example of careless environmental consumption and local destruction. As Americans moved in, Native Americans died in catastrophic smallpox and malaria epidemics, salmon were transformed from a valuable cultural symbol to an economic commodity to be canned and shipped away for profit, and the river became a haven for steamboats and small industry. As White says, “Oregonians sought to transform the river – to tame the bar, deepen the channels, and blast passages through rapids […] Humans forced the river to remove part of the sands and silt it annually deposited, and they took the rest, filling in marshes and creating new land” (37). The army corps of engineers and railroads started to reimagine the physical landscape, many pushed for more, for the contraction of dams, and expansion of farms, irrigation, and infrastructure. From the late 19th century on, increasing population size and demand for food led to overfishing that quickly spiraled out of control. Many conflicts also arose as fish started disappearing, capitalist became more powerful, and the river became more and more engineered; as some said, the rich industrialists and capitalists had “perverted work by using machines to plunder nature and displace human labor” (44).
In response, many people turned to the government to save their way of life. However, during the early to mid 20th century, the government had little idea of how to accurately manage natural systems. To stop fish stocks from disappearing, an intervention was targeted at enhancing the spawning process and building fish ladders or passes through dams (as pictured above at the John Day Dam) instead of preventing overfishing and blockages in the first place. The new salmon “hatcheries sought to wed technology and biology, to merge factory-like production with natural reproduction. The canners, many fishermen, and many experts on the fisheries came to regard nature as inefficient” (47). Desires to improve nature’s efficiency remain strong to this day despite their failure to actually increase salmon population sizes, improve relationships between Native Americans and others, and stop capitalist magnates from outcompeting smaller fishermen: a theme that rings true throughout much of human-environmental interaction around the world.
Salmon population control became a particularly poignant topic of debate during the early 1920s. Over time government bodies took control of the entire salmon life cycle, from the ineffective “Frankensteinian” hatcheries to physically shipping young fish from the spawning grounds out to sea so they could avoid the dozens of dams built during the 20th century (47). Habitat destruction, deforestation, building, and overfishing have all but caused salmon to disappear today and now require humans to grow and move them from place to place so that they may mature to adulthood: all so that they may be fished by local fishermen later. White points out, “Salmon had knit together the energy of land and sea; they had knit together human and nonhuman labor; salmon had defined the river for millennia” (89). Now that they were disappearing, both native and local peoples loudly voiced their desires to save the salmon, but they rarely pushed to reduce the dams and infrastructure that caused their decline.
The new equilibrium has decimated the salmon populations and made carp and shad the dominant fish species in the river. Meanwhile, Native Americans have desperately fought to enforce treaties “securing” their rights to fish salmon, and many other Americans in the Northwestern US argue for their rights to fish salmon. Consequently, the US government has hemorrhaged billions to breed and protect the once ubiquitous salmon population in the Columbia. These expenditures now outweigh the economic benefits from fishing the salmon, but to the locals, “Salmon are not so much a means of making a good living as symbols of the good life itself” (92). The misuse and increasing human influence have destroyed the most recognizable and culturally beloved aspect of the Columbia and encouraged an entrenched misunderstanding of healthy human-nature relationships.
White also discusses the growth of dams and mixing of the organic and inorganic to utilize energy. During WWI, the need for centralized electrical power became an absolute necessity to reduce the coal burden on railways and make room for soldiers and supplies. However, while the “Columbia was the country’s greatest single source of hydroelectricity,” there was not enough demand to make their construction economic until FDR’s New Deal (54). FDR created thousands of local jobs and expanded jobs through dam building throughout the Columbia and facilitated the growth of heavy industry (such as the plant shown here, note the water pollution and proximity to the river). Leading into WWII, areas around the Columbia became hives of aluminum production which increased demand for additional dam building and provided an “immediate service as an outlet for human labor” (56). Interestingly, engineers viewed dams as mimicking nature since some of the largest glacial dams in the world existed in the same area during the Pleistocene epoch; in their view, they were returning it to a previous natural state (57). Nonetheless, increased damming harmed local wildlife, prevented fish from moving to spawning grounds, overstressed the landscape, and allowed for another and more harmful industry. After WWII, the plutonium industry (the Hanford site pictured here) took off with little understanding of the environmental impacts of nuclear materials and a possibility for local contamination. Eventually, nuclear power joined the mix and together these industries released large amounts of radionuclides and other toxins into the environment including arsenic, chromium, and iodine 131 to name a few (81). As with the management of salmon, after billions of dollars of cleanup, we still did not seem to understand, and we still had and have a “failed relationship with nature” (59).
Overall, Richard White’s, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, provides a distinct regional perspective on the mixing of social, economic, and cultural influences on the environment and the intense and constant relationship they share. Some of the notable and popular 19th century influences on the Columbia included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lewis Mumford’s belief in a “utopian future” created through the mixing of machinery, labor, nature and society (58, 60). Of course, the dams and infrastructure provided power, irrigation, grew the economy and increased standards of living in the minds of most. Yet how much benefit did the industry and damming really bring when they also caused billions in toxic cleanup (Columbia river pollution pictured here) and natural management and irreplaceable losses of other natural systems and cultural pastimes such as fishing. These projects have brought about an uncompromising view of human dominance and control that has allowed salmon to transform from a once prosperous species to a “swimming genetic bank” (105). These ideals led to today’s oversimplified representation natural systems, an ignorance of our past, and belief that humans can disassemble and reassemble nature just like a machine (110).
However, as the title suggests, the Columbia and natural systems around the world are not regular machines, but are instead “organic machines,” and regardless of our influence they are “still tied to larger organic cycles beyond our control” (112). Nature clearly “has purposes of its own which do not readily yield to desires to maximize profit,” and society must come together and understand the mutualistic relationship of nature and human society through careful analysis of the effectiveness and non-monetary impacts of change (113). Preventative measures and increased awareness through education and advocacy will help solve many of the issues society spends so much time mitigating. Using a preventative approach will prepare society for climate change and mitigate its impacts, it will enhance renewable energy initiatives, expand net zero building policies, and reduce toxic contamination of the environment we are so wholly dependent upon. No longer shall the future be “forged amidst our inattention,” but instead be carefully and humbly prepared for through socially and environmentally responsible work: and lots of it (64).
White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Hill and Wang, 1995.
Of all the municipalities in the country, Boston, Massachusetts now ranks 5th in total LEED-certified space. Accumulating an impressive 15.4 million square feet of LEED-certified space in 2016, Boston has established itself as a clear leader in green construction and sustainable design. In addition to the 6 LEED platinum and 18 LEED Gold projects in 2016, Boston now outranks many of the greenest cities in the country including Houston, Denver, and Los Angeles, and has more LEED-certified square footage than Austin, Miami, and San Diego combined.
Boston’s impressive growth mirrors that of Massachusetts and demonstrates the ever-increasing demand for LEED certification. According to recent statistics by the national USGBC, Massachusetts achieved the highest per capita LEED-certified square footage of any state in the country in 2016 at 3.73 sq. ft. per person. USGBC Massachusetts’ executive director Grey Lee also told the Boston Business Journal, “Whether it’s an owner or a consultant or a contractor, you’ve got a lot of people paying attention to this, because the market demands it.” Lee has been a strong advocate of LEED for years and has witnessed its ability to increase value, drive demand, and distinguish property: “LEED is a global brand, and people recognize it as a third-party accountability structure that helps all parties get their game to a better level.”
In addition to the current 2017 advocacy priorities, USGBC Massachusetts continues to advocate for increased LEED certification, training, and awareness and believes in supporting a more sustainable, efficient, and environmentally conscious society. Recent state-level legislation, local and national advocacy efforts, and increasing international competition will continue to drive LEED growth in Boston and many other municipalities around the country. However, buildings in MA still account for 49% of the state’s GHG emissions and consume 50% of all energy used in the state. Clearly, continued implementation of LEED will not only reduce environmental impact, carbon emissions and decrease costs, but it will drastically improve quality of life for generations to come. Yet, Boston's current progress demonstrates a new level of commitment to sustainability and should be celebrated as a sign of future progress. Like our director loves to say, Boston is becoming a “Wicked Green” city, and nothing is going to stop it.
In less than two weeks, over 100 Massachusetts organizations, including a number of architectural firms, construction companies, universities, and energy efficiency and renewable energy organizations have signed on to the US Green Building Council's letter to protect the EPA's ENERGY STAR, WaterSense, and Safer Choice programs from losing funding. In opposition to the recently proposed budget, MA companies have demonstrated their commitment and support for smart and proven public programs that have vastly improved US consumer safety, expanded energy efficiency, and reduced trillions of gallons of unnecessary water use. While companies from around the country continue to back the initiative, MA has established itself as a leader in sustainability and environmentally conscious development.
Among their many benefits, ENERGY STAR, WaterSense, and Safer Choice have saved consumers, businesses, and state and local governments hundreds of billions in costs while providing effective technical assistance and research data for economic growth. ENERGY STAR has saved consumers over $430 billion in utility payments since its inception in 1992 and maintains an exceptional brand awareness of almost 90%. Cutting these programs will not only increase consumer’s energy bills and prevent an effective and sustainable energy transition into the future, but it will also eliminate or endanger tens of thousands of jobs around the country (and the world).
These programs have become international standards of excellence and demonstrate the ability for government programs to work effectively with the market to produce change. The EPA's ENERGY STAR, WaterSense, and Safer Choice programs have proven themselves as economically, environmentally, and socially indispensable and cannot be allowed to disappear or lose funding. Please take a moment to sign the USGBC’s letter to demonstrate your organization’s support for these essential programs. Please send your support to your representatives in congress if you are an individual and let them know how important these programs are to our health, our environment, and our future.
These two discussions will be led by Gina McCarthy, former EPA Administrator, as well as guest speakers Jim Jones, former EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, and Cynthia Giles, former EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assistance.
These are open to the community and will cover issues from how to engage in environmental issues, chemical and toxics safety laws and protections, and how new technologies are changing the environmental landscape. They will be located at Harvard Kennedy School, Room: Littauer 166, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge 02138. Check out the links above for more information.
Over the last few weeks, federal actions or, more appropriately, attacks against renewable energies and efficiency programs have limited the scope of federal authority and influence over future sustainability. Beginning with Trump’s promises to dismantle the EPA and exit the Paris Agreement, the administration has now proposed a budget that eliminates funding for energy efficiency programs such as ENERGY STAR which by itself has saved US consumers over $430 billion on utility bills, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 billion metric tons since 1992. In addition, yesterday’s executive order will rescind requirements on fossil fuel power plants, initiate a review of the Clean Power Plan, and eliminate protections created by Obama that required all agencies to consider climate change impacts before any major decision.
However, a new wave of sustainable energy bills has begun to pass throughout the country and given many hope for a new era of state-level leadership in renewable energy. The hundreds of proposed bills include solar tax breaks in South Carolina and Florida, phasing out fossil fuels and going 100% green in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, and many energy efficiency and net metering improvements around the country. Opposition to a number of anti-renewable bills has grown and attempts in Wyoming to prohibit utility wind and solar farm energy from being sold to in-state customers and an attempt in North Dakota to delay new wind projects by two years both failed almost immediately. While debates over net metering continue in many areas, the newfound ambition for mandatory and voluntary renewable energy targets demonstrates the continued work towards and potential of a sustainable energy transition.
Some notable state action includes bills by the Commonwealth, California, and Maryland. Massachusetts’ S.1849, An Act transitioning Massachusetts to 100 percent renewable energy, will require the state to get all of its electricity from renewables by 2035 and power for all heating, transportation and other sectors from renewables by 2050. The bill also requires the state to work with the administrative council for the clean energy transition and the clean energy center of excellence to create effective net zero energy building policies that, among other things, will require all new buildings in Massachusetts to be 100% net zero by 2030 and for all existing buildings to cut emissions by half within the same time. The California Senate leader also introduced Senate Bill No. 584 which will require the state to draw all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. Maryland also recently overrode the Governor’s veto to pass new renewable energy standards that require the state to obtain 25% of its power from renewables by 2020.
In the end, Trump’s crusade against renewable energies will likely fail amidst the rising tide of state-sponsored legislation and energy efficiency momentum. As wind and solar cost have plummeted they have allowed renewables make up a majority of added power generation to the total US and World capacities for the last few years. Even though the US government may not be a leader in energy sustainability and security for the next few years, the states and world will continue fighting through smart, effective, and cooperative energy policies. These will not only protect against the oncoming impacts of climate change, but also thoroughly cap carbon emissions and improve the wellbeing and prosperity of many generations to come.
UPDATE 3/21/17: The National USGBC created a call to action for companies and organizations to support the ENERGY STAR, Safer Choice, and WaterSense programs. If you are part of an organization that supports this, please sign the letter here. USGBC MA has signed on and encourages all other organizations concerned about energy efficiency to sign on as well!
President Trump's federal budget proposal will eliminate a number of vital energy efficiency programs from ENERGY STAR to ARPA-E. ENERGY STAR, which was started in 1992 by the EPA and DOE, has had unprecedented success in reducing consumer energy use. The program has prevented 2.7 billion metric tons GHG emissions and saved Americans $430 billion on their utility bills since the program’s inception in 1992. It has seen continuous increases in energy savings, emission reductions, and has become a paragon of sustainable branding with almost 90% of people associating the label with energy efficiency and quality. The budget cuts will leave at least 18,000 American jobless and endanger the 1.9 million American workers that work for the federally supported energy efficiency industry.
While the program may be transferred to a private company, with a transition cost of $5 million, removing the ENERGY STAR label from federal control could discredit program, will likely prevent true third-party evaluation and verification, and will reduce American prominence in the energy efficiency field around the world. It will also hinder net zero energy building and LEED compliance and expansion.
ENERGY STAR will be one of 60 other programs and 19 agencies to lose discretionary funding. Other energy-related programs to be cut include the Clean Power Plan, the International climate change programs, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the State Energy Program, and the Rural Business and Cooperative Service’s discretionary programs.
On the other hand, as military budgets increase (by $54 billion) they will have more opportunities to invest in renewable energy technologies. In the name of efficiency, safety, and security, the DoD doubled its renewable power generation from 2011 to 2015 to 10,534 billion BTU and supported hundreds of millions in solar power contracts. The military plans to continue investing in renewables and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2007 established the DoD’s voluntary goal of 25% renewable energy consumption by 2025. The military desires to expand renewables and hybrid technologies to increase security by reducing the threat of grid attacks and current dangers of explosive fuels instead of to reduce emissions and save the planet.
However, as the current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has repeatedly noted his support for weaning the military off its fossil fuel dependence for national security reasons the military will likely continue on its path to clean energy and national security. Still, Trumps budget cuts to the energy programs like ARPA-E will actively hinder the expansion of new safe energy systems for the military and prevent new advancements and improvements in military technology.
Overall, the loss of ENERGY STAR will seriously weaken US energy efficiency standards and slow progress to a safe and sustainable future. Some hope can be found in expanded military clean energy use but much progress will be lost unless this budget is amended and improved to protect the American people. If you think ENERGY STAR should be protected then contact your congressional representatives and tell them to stop these cuts.
The Massachusetts Department of Energy recently extended its SREC II program until January 2018 and released plans for a new solar incentive program called the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Energy Target (SMART) program to supersede it. As Ben Vila, a member of our advocacy team, described in his "Switching from SRECs to a $/kWh tariff system [through SMART] is expected to cut costs to the state and ratepayers by almost half while providing greater predictability for developers, investors, and facility owners." The new SMART tariff framework will incentivize at least 3,200 MW of additional solar development over the next few years (hopefully expanding net zero energy buildings!) and promote solar development on specific categories including low income, community shared solar, projects that integrate building mounted solar, as well as solar installations on brownfields, landfills, and commercial and industrial zones.
While incentives will be lower, especially on larger projects, the SMART program will offer 10-20 year fixed price compensation on a tier system that declines with increased capacity. This will allow total program costs to be assessed with certainty and reduces financial risks. The DOER also decreased 25kW SREC project compensation from 80% to 70% of current SREC II values. Nonetheless, the extension of the the SREC program will bridge the incentive programs and ensure continued investment in solar over the coming months and into 2018. The SMART program still needs approval from the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) which may happen later this year. For more details check out Ben Vilas' blog and the DOER's SMART Final Program Design. Also, check out another blog on the SMART program here.
Interested in the future of renewable energy? Do you think there should be a carbon price? What can we do to improve our energy use? These and many other questions will be answered in the coming weeks at multiple university public seminars, including Boston University's Institute for Sustainable Energy’s Spring 2017 public Seminar Series starting March 20 and going until late April. Come to these events and learn about the many aspects and issues of transitioning into a economically and socially sustainable future.
Come to Boston on March 20 for "Energy Storage Economics: The Impact on Renewables & Climate," to learn about modern energy storage, feasibility, and applications. On April 3rd there will be "Pricing Climate Risk," a discussion on carbon prices and taxes; on April 13, "Hurry or Wait: Pacing the Roll-out of Renewable Energy in the face of Climate Change"; and on April 24, BU will hold "US State & Local Policies: Key Catalysts to Renewable Electricity’s Ascent" to go over the ins and outs of environmentally sustainable policy.
These events are free and open to the public. They feature specialists in economics, engineering, business, law, and multiple authors including Brett Perlman and Gernot Wagner. Check out the events, their speakers, and RSVP here. The events will be from 4:00 to 5:00 pm at the Hariri Building, Room 508, 595 Commonwealth Avenue Boston MA, 02215.
Also, check out Harvard's sustainability events here! They have many fun, free, and public events going on in the near future.
What would you do if you knew 90,000+ Bostonians and nearly $80 billion in real estate and capital was threatened by sea level rise? Would you scoff at the possibility? Tell everyone to close up shop and run? Avoid investment in beachfront property? Or maybe, build a wall and adapt?
Well, that last one is just what the city of Boston is currently considering. In the December 2016 Climate Ready Boston Final Report, the city found that even with major reductions in emissions the chances of at least 21 inches of sea level rise is nearly certain by 2050 and 36 inches is highly likely by the end of the century. The study also found that there remains a 15% chance of 7.4 feet of sea level rise by 2070 if emissions were to stay at exactly today’s levels. Moreover, a January NOAA Technical Report increased the administration’s previous worst-case sea level rise scenario from 6.6 feet to 8.2 feet: not an encouraging update for a city that rests just 1 foot above mean sea level.
These graphs show the annual monetary losses for different scenarios and sectors contributing to the losses in the 36-inch scenario: from the Climate Ready Boston Final Report.
All scenarios would lead to more frequent flooding, more severe floods, and massive losses of land and capital. Estimated losses from the 36-inch scenario would amount to $1.4 billion in annual losses due to interruptions in business activities, destruction of infrastructure and private capital, costs of human relocation, losses in productivity, and much more. One can only imagine the costs of worst case scenarios.
These costs have spurred investment in feasibility studies for constructing a 4 mile, 20-foot tall sea wall from Winthrop to the Hull Peninsula. Other ideas include building a wall around Boston and Logan Airport, covering from Winthrop to Quincy, or building a shorter system of dikes between Deer Island and Telegraph Hill. These would be designed with hydraulic gates that could be closed during high tides and large storms and opened to permit shipping and trade vessels. The image here from the Boston Climate Report show where some of the walls might be located.
However, such a structure would cost billions and have severe ecological and environmental impacts throughout the harbor from species loss to water pollution and changing currents. It also begs the question, why are we willing to consider such a large adaptive measure without also discussing the issue at hand? If we spend billions to build a wall, we should also invest billions in renewable energies and net zero buildings. While the threat of sea level rise to the city and surrounding areas will most likely outweigh the the costs, preventative measures and sustainable, low carbon policies could greatly enhance the success of this project and reduce its ultimate cost.
It goes without saying that anthropogenic climate change has established a hazardous and costly future for Boston, the state, and coastal civilization in general. While the immediate options might seem clear, prepare and adapt to the coming changes or suffer the consequences, we must take a step back from the issue and understand how we got here and how to address the emission issues while adapting to the inevitable consequences. Maybe your decision, and the city's, should be to create a wall covered in wind turbines? Regardless, combining adaptation and mitigation strategies will lead to the most sustainable and prosperous future.