BLOG: Energy efficient buildings as a tool to mitigate climate change

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by JOC Digital Media

Diana Urge-Vorsatz, the director of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of the North American Passive House Network's 2015 conference held in downtown Vancouver.
BLOG: Energy efficient buildings as a tool to mitigate climate change

Urge-Vorsatz is also a leading climate scientist within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international organization which assesses the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.

Urge-Vorsatz said warming continues to accelerate and she said one of the broadest impacts is a change in the rate of precipitation. From 1951-2010 there was a striking increase in precipitation in some areas of North America and a marked decrease in other regions of the continent. Other ongoing trends include changes in species distribution due to weather and earlier peak flow of snowmelt runoff in snow dominated streams and rivers in western North America.

Mean temperatures over the last two decades (1986-2005) have gone up 1.5 to two degrees, Urge-Vorsatz said. At this rate, by the end of the century, we will be at four to six degrees higher, she said.

"At two degrees, we can deal with most impacts. Above two degrees, we are facing a major crisis," she said.

The good news is that if we do keep climate change at two degrees, Urge-Vorsatz said, we can avoid the worst effects of the phenomenon.

"The end of the century is not a distant future anymore," she added, saying many children born now will live until near the end of the century. "What can we do?" She asked.

The largest emitting nations are China, the United States, Europe and India, with China's emissions twice that of the United States. U.S. emissions are actually declining, she said, despite fracking and other practices.

High efficiency buildings are key to mitigating climate change, she said. They are responsible for much of the emissions, have a high mitigation potential, are amongst the most cost-effective options to mitigate climate change and have side benefits once implemented.

If only direct emissions are reported, buildings don't have much in the way of emissions. But, if you add indirect emissions (such as electricity use) they become one of the biggest emitters. The building sector offers the largest low-cost potential in all world regions to lower emissions, she said.

There is a potential to reduce thermal energy use in buildings by a third by moving to very high efficiency systems. There is a large cost in adopting these systems, but the energy performance improvement over the life of the building is worth it, she said.

The durability of the building is a key factor in determining mitigation cost-effectiveness and also improve their mitigation potential due to reduced embodied emissions, Urge-Vorsatz said.

While opportunities are great, she said, there is also a substantial lock-in risk. After retro-fitting a building, no-one will go back to upgrade it again, which creates a lock-in should conditions worsen substantially. From an economic potential, we are simply not rich enough to keep adapting.

"So, we need to go for the highest efficiency and highest technology now," Urge-Vorsatz said.

However, Passive House has to move from a niche market to be part of the building code, she said, in order for these efficiencies to take hold. Ambitious building codes may be impossible in some countries, she said, but cities and states can often be more proactive and flexible than federal governments.

Policy "miracles" have also happened in the past, she said, such as banning incandescent bulbs and the rise of nearly zero energy building regulations in the European Union.

As a result, some European countries such as Denmark, Finland and the U.K. have started to stabilize or reverse their total emission trends. There have also been reductions from federal U.S. government buildings over the past three decades, she said, along with a downward trend in overall consumption in the United States.

"Even though the economy grew 28 per cent from 2000 to 2014, energy use remained the same" Urge-Vorsatz said.

Shale gas extraction has fundamentally reshaped U.S. energy consumption she said, which partly accounts for the reductions. But, in order to keep climate change below dangerous levels, she said, the passive house community has to take an active role in catalyzing a "miracle" to move PH standards into building codes.

The 2015 North American Passive House Network Conference (NAPHN15) is taking place Oct. 1-2 at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver, B.C. Check back for more blogs, stories and videos from the conference.

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