How baby steps can lead to giant leaps in carbon reduction

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When people dedicate their life’s passion to a global cause, nothing is more satisfying than seeing the awakening of hearts and minds as their message breaks through. That’s how I have felt as I’ve witnessed the world’s top carbon-producing nations and some of the most carbon-intensive industries make real commitments to address global carbon reduction over the past few months.

But to be honest, despite my perennially hopeful attitude regarding global progress on carbon reduction, I’m tired of all the talk.

At December’s COP28 in Dubai, leaders published a document in which they promised “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” Agreement was even reached on forming a loss and damage fund for developing nations suffering from the impacts of climate change. And last but not least was the ambitious “Buildings Breakthrough,” a commitment by 27 countries responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions to focus on reducing carbon in that one sector.

Just weeks later, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, many of those same leaders pledged to rebuild trust in the effort to deliver on carbon-reducing promises. These are all encouraging words, to be sure.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., government officials have been talking about net zero carbon — not necessarily how to achieve it, but how to define it. My organization, the Global Network for Zero, recently submitted comments to the Biden administration to address the effort to draft a national definition of net zero buildings. In April, the U.S. Department of Energy submitted its “final rule” designed to end the use of fossil fuels in federal buildings.

If one listens to what is said at gatherings like COP28 or Davos or reads the text of new carbon-reducing guidelines from the U.S., one might be tempted to say, “Mission accomplished.” Global leaders say they will take global-scale action to address the impact of carbon. 

But we know that’s not quite the case. That loss and damage fund that emerged from COP28? It’s now mired in international disagreements. Achieving net zero globally by 2050? A new survey by the Atlantic Council says there is a lack of political will. 

Enough is really enough when it comes to words. From Dubai to Davos to D.C. it’s time to stop talking about reducing carbon and start taking action. And I mean any action.

And that’s where one of the problems lies. 

I spoke with someone recently who holds a widely shared but, in my opinion, misguided viewpoint. While we agreed on the end goal of achieving net-zero carbon in buildings, we disagreed regarding the pathway to achieving it. I suggested that the road to net zero begins with a first step, even just a baby step, but repeated on a grand scale. I was told that a bottom-up approach would not get it done. This person argued a top-down strategy targeted at the top 5 to 10 percent of the market was better. 

Frankly, that is wrong.

Often, commercial property owners and business leaders find themselves overwhelmed with the required scale of necessary carbon reduction. Decarbonization becomes just one more “have to” rather than a “must do.” Those property owners and business leaders stare at the maze that those rules create, not to mention the investment of time and money, not knowing where to start.

The solution is a relatively simple one — incrementalism. When done at scale across industries and geographies, an incremental approach to carbon reduction can bring about massive reductions in global carbon. 

Just take the case of existing buildings. Nearly one-third of all energy produced annually worldwide is consumed by buildings. One-quarter of energy-related emissions are due to the operation of those same buildings. Right now, just 0.023 percent of buildings around the world qualify as net zero energy. 

Most of those are new construction, where regulations and codes have their greatest impact. Most buildings worldwide are not new construction. In fact, 80 percent of the buildings that will exist in 2050 — the year targeted as a milepost for carbon reduction — are already standing. 

If those buildings were to take the first step of measuring their emissions, then the second critical step of implementing practical but effective measures to reduce it, just imagine the impact that could have on a global scale.

If words were always followed by action, the planet would not be in its current situation. So, let’s put the words aside for now. The tools to reduce carbon and make a global difference are not sitting in a research facility. They are here and within reach for every building owner and business leader. 

And it can begin with just one baby step. After all, most babies learn to walk before they can talk, right?

Mahesh Ramanujam is the co-founder, president and CEO of the Global Network for Zero and former president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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