Clear skies for now, but the greenhouse gases will come roaring back
Nature has a way of reasserting itself.
Fifty years ago, young people took to the streets to call for a healthy, sustainable environment, and by the end of that year, the Environmental Protection Agency was born. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were passed.
We quickly learned, however, that any effort to protect the environment must be global in scope – because what happens in China doesn’t stay in China.
Pollution levels in places where people are sheltered in place are dramatically lowered; before and after satellite images are now available to provide unequivocal proof that the way we live contributes to CO2 emissions.
When people think of greenhouse emissions, factories and transportation are often the first to come to mind. What is often overlooked are buildings – commercial and residential – despite the fact that they are responsible for sucking up nearly half the globe’s energy.
Few realize that the construction and ongoing operation of buildings consume 40% of the primary energy in the United States and 70% of the US electrical power plant capacity. And because a very small percentage of electricity is generated from renewable sources, buildings are responsible for 39% of all global CO2 emissions. Compare that with 23% from transportation and 32% from the industrial sector.
Much of the energy consumed by buildings is used for lighting and keeping us warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Windows play an outsized role: 30% of the energy used to heat and cool a building is directly attributable to windows.
We’re at a wonderful point in time where a confluence of technologies that, when used together, can dramatically reduce the energy consumed by buildings – even if they’re made of all glass. Architects now have a slew of building technologies to create high performing envelopes – from walls to roofs to smart windows.
Smart glass technologies haven’t received media attention in the way that electric vehicles have – so public awareness is low. But there exist smart glass technologies that automatically tint to block the sun’s heat and reduce or eliminate glare outright. These smart windows respond to data from a rooftop, room occupancy, and lighting sensors to tint to the perfect shade to keep the people inside comfortable – without the need for a single shade or blind. This new class of smart windows alone can reduce a building’s energy consumption by as much as 20%.
Let’s give tax incentives to the construction industry to encourage builders to invest in new building technologies such as smart glass, similar to the ones the federal government used to spur the adoption of solar panels and hybrid and electric vehicles in the U.S.
Let’s require buildings to meet energy efficiency goals that force builders to adopt the latest energy-saving technologies. New York City’s “Climate Mobilization Act,” passed in 2019, is an example. Similar proposals by Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. should be emulated, like L.A.’s February 10, 2020 order requiring all new construction, major upgrades, and retrofits of municipally-owned buildings demonstrate a pathway to carbon neutrality.
The economic impact of climate change is often regional and precipitated by a natural disaster – so there isn’t the immediate global consciousness of how connected our environments are.
On this Earth Day, let’s look up and remind ourselves how smog-free skies look. Let’s look beyond electric vehicles and renewable energy to see how we can keep those clear skies. Let’s work towards using the building materials and technologies that make our buildings more efficient; in doing so, we’ll dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. These technologies exist. All we have to do is use them.
Howard is a co-founder of Kinestral. He was formerly VP R&D at Symyx Technologies where he pioneered the use of combinatorial methods for the discovery and optimization of functional materials. With a Ph.D. from MIT, Howard started his career with Exxon. He has authored more than 60 scientific publications and 100 issued patents.