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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Measuring Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Devil is in the Details, Part 3 in a Series

By Amy Erixon, Toronto


This last February marked 10 years since the Kyoto Protocol came into effect (it was originally signed 18 years ago).  The purpose of the treaty is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, in other words to do something about those climate change contributors which are under the control of mankind.  The treaty launched an effort by the UN to measure the 1990 “baseline” emission levels, by country and put in place a framework for voluntary commitments by member nations to reduction of their greenhouse gas emissions.  165 Nations are signatories, including Mexico and virtually all the rest of the world.  The US under George Bush, never ratified the treaty and Canada, under Stephen Harper renounced membership in 2012. 
There are signs that the times are changing.  A week ago the Conservative led federal government of Canada (still led by Stephen Harper) announced a new goal to reduce emissions from current levels by one-third by 2030, primarily through a plan to put in place new regulations on emissions from the oil and gas sector.   This comes on the heels of an announcement earlier in the week that the Province of Ontario intends to cut its emissions 40% by 2030 from 2005 levels, which came a week following the shocking upset of the Conservative majority government in Alberta by an upstart candidate pledging to withdraw the application for the Keystone Pipeline, and address Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions more aggressively.
Global leaders in this area are light years ahead of the Canadians and Americans.  Germany, for example currently averages 27% of its power from renewables and hit a record on May 11 - 75% of the country’s power consumption that day was produced from “green” sources.  Germany’s target is 80% emission reduction by 2030 through a combination of renewable power and conservation efforts (all new construction in Germany must be net zero after 2020).  It is Brazil that is the world leader in reduction of emissions, having reduced deforestation by 70% over the decade - an impact more than three times greater than taking all the cars in the US off the road for a year.  Trees are the earth’s superfood – they use carbon as they grow and sequester CO2 in the ground.
It is harder than it looks.    
How governmental authorities “count” carbon is complex and is a matter for debate.  For example concrete, one of the most carbon intensive building products to produce has lifetime energy reducing attributes such as heat retention and long term endurance, reducing waste.   When applying emission rules to property, many factors need to be taken into consideration: construction techniques in addition to materials; a transportation footprint (how materials were delivered to where they were used); operating metrics (such as heating and cooling) and attributes (how do workers arrive and what do they do in the building); as well as life cycle considerations (useful life, demolition and refurbishments).    Direct emissions include fuel combustion by the property and its fleet vehicles and equipment (whether leased or owned).  Purchased electricity, heat or steam has a point of origin footprint which varies depending on how the power was produced (green sources or carbon based).  Indirect emissions include those produced in manufacturing materials used and consumed during construction and operation, employee commuting, on-site operations of tenants, waste disposal as well as useful life of building components.   This is a complex calculus indeed, but it is being done. 
Carbon controls are in place in one half of all US States, and most Canadian Provinces, and it looks safe to assume such legislation is quickly becoming mainstream in North America.   While the California Cap and Trade initiative appears to be gaining momentum, the 10 state Northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is showing signs of distress.  Moderate Republican Governor Chris Christie recently announced New Jersey will be pulling out as the marketplace is administrated unevenly and is not creating enough revenue to support the state’s commitment to the production of green energy.  Massachusetts has pulled out for similar reasons.   A discussion of the merits of Cap and Trade vs. Carbon Tax was the subject of Part 2 of this series, published in April of this year. 
To date only one Canadian Province is on track to achieve Canada’s original 2020 goal:  Nova Scotia.  Through decommissioning of its coal fired plants in recent years, Ontario has achieved a present level 9% below 1990 levels, roughly on par with New Jersey’s progress using the same initiatives.  Other than California, which is on track to product 35% of its energy from renewables by 2020, most westernmost states and Provinces - despite numerous initiatives, still have current emission levels above 1990, largely due to very high population and employment growth.   
The real estate community has embraced energy efficiency certification, such as Energy Star, BOMA BESt, GreenGlobes and LEED™ but these initiatives tackle the component parts with different methodologies and scoring, and collectively have not done enough to meet 2020 targets.  Efforts are underway to develop a tenant certification program, and the likely next steps may include certification of construction methodologies as well.  Avison Young made the decision last year to become a GRESB reporter, recognizing the comprehensive roadmap this protocol offers for both energy and greenhouse gas reporting as well as numerous other aspects of corporate social responsibility and governance.   After 30 years of regulation and innovation in transportation and power industries great improvements in those industries’ emissions have been achieved.  We think it’s time that buildings contribute their share.   


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