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Focus On Future Prez’s Plans


By Pam Hunter

As the nation gears up to elect a new president in November, those who care about green building and sustainability are finding some encouraging signs. Both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) say they support green building as a way to promote energy efficiency and address global warming. Both advocate tightening efficiency standards to address the built environment’s contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions, and both have developed policies for dealing with the nation’s energy crisis. But the manner in which the two candidates approach the issues differs in both small and large ways. Amid the national debates over climate change and energy policy, voters are weighing their options carefully, knowing that whatever the outcome of the 2008 elections, the next president is likely to set in motion regulations and legislation that will have ramifications for years to come.

Focus on Future Prez’s Plans
Image courtesy Jim Frazier
Do the candidates’ plans for the environment go far enough?
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According to Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal regulations at the American Institute of Architects, “the fact that we’re in a situation now that the next president, regardless of who wins, recognizes the issue, is a very encouraging sign.” In campaign speeches, both candidates defend green building as a way to reduce carbon emissions, and they support global-warming legislation similar to the cap-and-trade Lieberman-Warner bill that failed in the Senate this summer.

Buildings Part of the Equation

Obama says he would overhaul federal building efficiency codes regularly during his administration. He would set zero-emissions goals for all new buildings by 2030 and for federal buildings by 2025. He would also establish a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next 10 years to meet the 2030 goal. Obama has also outlined his plan for a competitive grant program that would reward “early adopter” states and localities that enact new building codes prioritizing energy efficiency. Although McCain’s plan is less fleshed-out, he too supports tightening efficiency standards on both new and existing buildings, although his focus is primarily on federal buildings.

Most of the conversations about green building and improving the energy efficiency of buildings have been in the context of larger discussions related to global warming. The candidates are strikingly similar in their goals for reducing the nation’s carbon emissions. Obama advocates an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050; McCain has established a timetable to reduce emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Both support a cap-and-trade program that would auction off permits to generate revenue for investment and research into alternative energy sources.

Goldberg says that The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and other groups have been working with the candidates to get across the point that “if you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, looking at the building sector is absolutely vital.” Buildings generate anywhere from 39 percent to 48 percent of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, according to various sources.

Michelle Moore, senior vice president of policy and public affairs at the U.S. Green Building Council, adds, “Having a CO2 emissions cap can help put a higher value on efficiency. A real-dollar value based on a cap-and-trade could make buildings the first place that people go to drive efficiency and CO2 emissions reductions.”

They Differ on Energy

Despite the similarities in their overall climate-change goals, the candidates differ on some key points. Obama supports developing a federal renewable portfolio standard that would require 25 percent of the nation’s power to come from renewable sources by 2025. McCain does not support a federal renewable standard and generally opposes subsidies for renewable energy sources, including solar and wind, as well as for ethanol. Instead, McCain would rely more on market forces to spur growth in nuclear power, increased offshore drilling along the nation’s coastlines, and investment in “clean coal” technologies such as carbon sequestration.

Gordon Holness, a consulting engineer and president-elect of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, notes that “the trouble with market forces is [that they] normally are long-cycle aspects, and we’re in a situation now where we don’t have that [luxury].”

Obama would rely more on a combination of federal incentive, tax-credit and investment programs. For example, he would use funds generated through emissions trading to develop a five-year, $10 billion-per-year venture capital fund to support the commercialization of viable alternative energy technologies. He also supports developing incentives for utilities that increase energy efficiency. “Today, many of the utility companies’ rate structures are predicated on sales of energy rather than energy efficiency,” says Holness.

McCain does support providing $30 billion in tax credits for developers of clean-coal technologies over the next 15 years and using some of the proceeds from emissions permits for investment in a “diversified portfolio” of nuclear, clean-coal, and more efficient automobile battery technologies. 

Obama also believes that coal should be part of a national strategy, but that the focus should be on carbon-sequestration research, notes Elgie Holstein, his senior energy policy adviser. Obama does not support building additional coal-fired plants using conventional technologies, Holstein says. Instead, Obama believes that natural gas can meet much of the nation’s energy needs until carbon sequestration is commercially available.

During the summer, Obama modified his position on offshore drilling. Initially adamantly opposed to additional offshore drilling, he said in early August that he would be willing to consider limited additional drilling in order to get Congress to pass a comprehensive energy plan. “While I still don’t believe that’s a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I am willing to consider it if it’s necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan,” he said in an Aug. 4 speech in Michigan.

Despite the differences, green building advocates are hopeful about the next administration. USGBC’s Moore says, “To have attention from national policymakers who are looking at incentives, standards, and other policy mechanisms that help move the market forward is very good for both the climate and the industry.” 

Moore and others are gearing up to educate the candidates and ultimately the next administration about ways sustainability and green building can be part of an overall energy conservation strategy. “No matter who is president and who is in Congress next year, we want to work with them,” says AIA’s Goldberg. “Whoever loses [the election] is still going to be in the Senate, and will still have an important role.”

Pamela Hunter is an associate editor for GreenSource’s sister publication, Engineering News-Record, where she covers politics, legislation, and environmental issues.

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This article appeared in the September 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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