After Paris: How Houston’s Green Building Sector Can Contribute to Slowing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Author: Adele Houghton

The landmark climate change agreement reached last Saturday at the 21st Council of Parties (or COP21) in Paris calls for “[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C [3.6 °F] above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C [2.5 °F].” Essentially, what this means is that nearly 200 countries (including the U.S., China, and India) have agreed to peak their GHG emissions long before mid-century and start transitioning to an energy-efficient, post-carbon world that runs on renewable sources of energy.

The sense of urgency behind this ambitious goal stems from the fact that we have already emitted over half of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) required to reach the 2 °C threshold. And, we are currently on track to exceed 2 °C by 2045. (For more detail, download this info-graphic from the World Resources Institute.) Scientists predict that capping emissions at 2 °C will avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. But, there is growing consensus that it would be far safer (particularly for low-lying areas) to cap emissions at 1.5 °C.

What does this agreement have to do with Houston?

Populations worldwide — including Houstonians — are already experiencing the effects of the first degree of global warming.

The following list, paraphrased from NASA’s climate change webpage, walks through some of the most salient effects that have been measured by scientists over the past century.

While the relationship between climate change and our daily lives may not be immediately apparent from the NASA website, the Human Health Chapter in the 2014 National Climate Assessment makes a clearer link by sharing the state of the evidence on how climate change is exacerbating some diseases and transporting others to new places. Relevant health impacts outlined in the NCA in more detail are listed below in (parentheses).

  • 6.7-inch rise in global sea levels, which puts coastal areas such as the Houston metro area at increased risk of flooding. (Health impacts: Death, injury, population displacement, and exposure to food- and waterborne diarrheal pathogens due to sea level rise, storm surge, and/or hurricanes.)
  • Global temperature rise, which has accelerated in recent decades and has led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves in cities like Houston. (Health impacts: Heat-related deaths during heat waves; respiratory disease due to increased air pollution.)
  • Warming and increasingly acidic oceans, which jeopardizes both commercial fishing and recreational water use in coastal areas like Houston. (Health impacts: Exposure to food- and waterborne diarrheal pathogens; negative health effects associated with economic disruption.)
  • Increase in frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, heavy precipitation events leading to flooding, and hurricanes. (Health impacts in addition to those listed above: Mental health and stress-related disorders.)

By establishing a process for transitioning the world away from fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement aims to both limit future climate-related damage and galvanize the entrepreneurial innovation and leadership that will be necessary to transition to a post-carbon economy.

Green Building Demonstrates Leadership

The non-profit Architecture 2030 has made a compelling case for the building industry taking a leadership role in reducing global GHG emissions. As they visualize on their website, close to 50% of energy generated in the U.S. is consumed by buildings. Due to the electrical grid’s heavy reliance on coal and other fossil fuels, this means that buildings are responsible for over 40% of GHG emissions nationally. When car-centric land use patterns are added into the equation, the built environment as a whole (buildings + transportation) is responsible for nearly 70% of emissions.

As Tim Murray’s article on this website explains, the built environment was a tangible and powerful presence at COP21 negotiations over the past few weeks, demonstrating that the climate change community is increasingly recognizing the meaningful contribution to emissions reduction that can be made through widespread adoption of green building tools like Architecture 2030, LEED, and the Living Building Challenge. Those benefits are amplified when coupled with sustainable land use configurations such as dense and mixed-use neighborhoods, transit-oriented developments, and complete streets.

These are exciting times in the green building industry. At COP21, USGBC National committed to reducing the building sector’s GHG emissions through scaling up LEED certifications to more than 5 billion square feet over the coming 5 years – an ambitious goal!

We welcome your participation as both the new Texas State Chapter and our local region accelerate our efforts to demonstrate green building’s central role in helping the American economy transition to a post-carbon future. Please contact 2016 regional chair, David MacLean, to learn more about how you can get involved.