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Thu., April 23, 2009

Our View: Buildings contribute a third of greenhouse gases

The article on Earth Day about the Bank of America Financial Center’s drive to recycle is a reminder that buildings are a major environmental player, especially in the area of climate change. Though the spotlight is usually shined on smokestack industries and automobiles, fully one-third of greenhouse gas emissions emanate from buildings.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone. A 2008 poll by the American Institute of Architects found that only 4 percent of respondents identified homes, offices and other buildings as a leading source of greenhouse gas pollution. Yes, building design and materials, heating and air conditioning, lighting fixtures and appliances all contribute heavily to the problem.

Making sure new buildings are energy efficient and upgrading the insulation and windows in existing structures could prevent the escape of about three-fourths of the 2.2 billion tons of building-related emissions annually in North America, according to a report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

Of the major man-made causes of global warming, building construction offers the cheapest way to make inroads. This is especially true in China, which erects half the new buildings in the world every year.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified buildings as one area where environmental adaptations can lead to a net economic benefit. President Barack Obama recognized this when he cited McKinstry Co., a Seattle-based construction and energy-services contractor, as a national model. The company retrofits schools and businesses to make them more energy efficient.

McKinstry’s chief executive officer recently testified to the U.S. Senate that 20 jobs are created for every $1 million spent on energy efficiency. Economists at the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute concur.

The Obama administration has responded with $50 billion for green-oriented building projects as part of its overall economic stimulus package. SustainableWorks, which was put together by the Spokane Alliance, helps low-income households retrofit for energy efficiency. It’s a good example of how neighborhood-based efforts can benefit an entire community.

It’s heartening to see the Bank of America center divert plastic bottles, aluminum cans and office paper from the nation’s landfills, but there are many other constructive steps we can take to heat up the economy while cooling off the planet.

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