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Curbing Global Warming

Combating Climate Change: Whether through legislation or administrative action, U.S. limits on greenhouse-gas emissions seem an almost foregone conclusion.


By Joann Gonchar, AIA

It now appears nearly inevitable that American industry will soon have to contend with regulations governing greenhouse-gas emissions. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally designated carbon dioxide and five additional heat-trapping gases as pollutants that endanger public health and welfare.

Combating Climate Change
Image © Brian Stauffer
The Waxman-Markey bill sets a cap on carbon pollution, cutting emissions over time and targeting an 83 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2050.
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The agency’s decision initiates a rule-making process and paves the way for emissions limits under the Clean Air Act. Some critics contend that the act, now more than 40 years old, is ill-suited for regulating carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. And others predict that any resulting emissions restrictions would become mired in lawsuits. However, many observers say that the real objective of the EPA action is to put pressure on lawmakers to enact legislation tailor-made to addressing climate change. “The finding is intended as a spur to Congress,” says Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal affairs for the American Institute of Architects.

And in fact, the House has already approved energy and climate-change legislation that includes emissions-reduction targets. The bill, known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), passed narrowly by 219 to 212 votes late in June. Sponsored by democratic representatives Henry A. Waxman of California, and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, ACES would establish a “cap-and-trade” system that sets limits for emissions and creates a market for buying and selling pollution allowances. The bill seeks to reduce emissions three percent from 2005 levels by 2012. The required reductions would surge up to 17 percent by 2020, and to 83 percent by mid-century.

Whether restrictions are ultimately instituted through administrative action under the Clean Air Act, or through new legislation, they are unlikely to apply directly to buildings, sources say. Instead, the regulations will focus on point sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, such as utilities, refining operations, and other large industrial sources. Polluters could meet emissions targets through a variety of strategies, including those that would encourage reduced demand. Electrical utilities, for example, could institute net-metering programs. “They wouldn’t have to accomplish the required reductions solely on the generation side,” explains Jennifer Amann, buildings program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The Waxman-Markey bill does include aspects that would more directly address buildings’ contribution to climate change. ACES calls for enhanced energy-efficiency requirements and an accelerated development schedule for national building codes, incentives for existing building retrofits, and a performance-labeling program. A bill approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in mid-June, the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, also has provisions aimed at the built environment. So far, the Senate bill does not include a cap-and-trade measure.

Although it is still too early to predict how the legislative and regulatory processes will play out, many analysts expect at least partial resolution before the United Nations conference on climate change to be held in Denmark in December. “No one knows for sure whether there will be emissions regulations or energy legislation,” says Jeffrey Harris, vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy. “But, the U.S. will be reluctant to show up [in Copenhagen] empty handed.”

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This article appeared in the July 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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