Solar Tribune

Climate Change Policy: Built Environment Policies

In the modern and developed world, we spend the majority of our time inside the built environment– homes, office buildings, commercial outlets, and even industrial facilities. Combined, the emissions accounted for in the buildings sector (just residential plus commercial) traditionally accounts for 40% of global emissions, while the industrial sector tacks on an additional 22%. If policies are seeking to find the source of greenhouse gas emissions where they’re commonly found, then they should look no further than the built environment. And these emissions are only going to get more significant at urbanization brings more people to the cities, developing countries build up traditional economies that rely more on the built environment, and technology gets more and more ingrained into everything we do.

Luckily, many traditional climate change policy options focus on buildings and activities that take place in this built environment, including the following:


Building Energy Codes

green building energy efficiency codes climate change

What is it: Just like buildings must be to code when it comes to fire preparedness and electrical safety, many jurisdictions have codes for the energy systems installed in residential and commercial buildings. Building energy codes typically cover how airtight the building envelope (i.e., walls, floors, and ceiling) is to ensure efficient use of heating and cooling, lighting installations, and required levels of insulation. The goal is to prevent unnecessarily wasted energy in the stock buildings due to cutting corners, and because once constructed buildings will be operating for at least decades, building energy codes are among the energy policies with the longest time of impact.

Is it enacted anywhere: While there is no singular U.S. building energy code, most states have adopted building energy codes of some level, according to the Building Codes Assistance Project.

In Favor of Building Energy Codes:

“Shifting the materials we build our spaces and our urban environments with is something we can do today because these superior and beneficial materials for rooftops and walls across the globe already exist. Using optimal roofing materials and strategies will have a substantial energy efficiency impact by keeping our buildings cooler and reducing the need for air conditioning, it improves thermal comfort, and it promotes global cooling in a way that not only reduces the amount of greenhouse gases you’d otherwise emit but it also cancels some of the warming effect of the greenhouse gases you’ve already emitted.” – Kurt Shickman, Executive Director of Global Cool Cities Alliance

“Building energy codes that reduce wasted energy, optimize material usage, and ensure safe structures are essential. National codes should set minimum standards that local governments must enact. As a society, we should be working together to conserve resources and ensure the safety of our homes both for our own families and for future owners.” – Don Vandervort, Founder of

“Strong building energy codes are one of the most effective, and cost-effective, mechanisms to increase the long-term energy efficiency of buildings”- Institute for Market Transformation

“Cities have increasingly strategized ways to retrofit, improve, and build buildings with climate goals in mind. This is a huge way for cities to tackle climate change. Most recently, we saw St. Louis become the third city to put into law Building Energy Performance Standards to meet energy efficiency targets in their building sector. This is an area of policy that has a lot of support from building associations, construction associations — from most of the stakeholders that you really need to get bought into this. Climate policies for buildings also create output that city residents can actually see, such as improved equipment or LEED certification plaques. This makes such policies easier to understand from a layperson’s standpoint, and allows cities to bring everyday residents into the conversation.” – Kristin Musulin, Senior Editor at Smart Cities Dive

“When it comes to housing, there are a lot of benefits to having greener housing (e.g. powered up with renewable energy and/ or more insulated). We need to pay attention that everybody can benefit from this greening process. You can imagine that a lower income household would benefit in seeing its bill reduced, but the investment upfront might be too big for them, so it’s important to consider how green housing in a neighborhood might lead to gentrification and leaving the lower income households behind.” – Yamide Dagnet, Senior Associate Project Director at World Resources Institute

“In Delaware, we advocated for adopting the new building energy codes because it is really important. While there is no silver bullet in green building strategies, best best is using a combination of pull and push strategies. you can start by incentivizing -putting the carrot out there- for early adopters. Those early adopters will help to  create the necessary market transformation, and once that happens you can then raise the floor with requiring minimum building energy codes and standards. The minimum efficiency standards are important tools to make sure no one falls behind.Then you can continue push forward with incentives, funding R&D, and other policy tool for an all encompassing strategy.” – Bahareh van Boekhold, Co-Chair of DE Community Green Building United, Board Member, Green Building United and Program Manager, Applied Energy Group, Inc

“The area that is commonly overlooked is building energy efficiency, which is pretty ‘blah’ stuff if you start talking about it in a ‘blah’ way, but we see it as where a real Green New Deal can actually happen. 70% of New York City’s climate pollution comes from buildings, and upgrading those buildings to high energy efficiency creates high numbers of jobs.” – Pete Sikora, Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director at New York Communities for Change

“It’s clear that energy use in buildings will not reduce without regulation requiring more energy efficient buildings in order to require associated companies to innovate and apply even better solutions. While many energy efficiency solutions are out there already, it’s als not just about innovation but uptake as well, because construction is so expensive that without regulation builders aren’t going to pay an additional premium for requirements that aren’t already integrated.” – Paula Kivimaa, Research Professor for Climate and Society at the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE

“What’s been really effective here in New York is amendments to building energy code and zoning, as well as local government legislation. We recently passed a building emissions local law which sets annual caps on greenhouse gas emissions that a building can generate in any year, and exceeding that emissions means they’ll be penalized. Having that enforcement side will really drive up regulatory actions and force buildings to have to comply, and that’s what’s been most effective. Building energy code stringency and the engagement of local government officials as well as architects/engineers in code creation and adoption are key- these are the parties most familiar with design application and they need to have elevated participation, compared to markets/manufacturers that may not prioritize energy savings. Codes set a minimum baseline for energy targets for buildings, but could be advanced more quickly if the city government had the support of state and federal level governments to adopt codes that exceed minimum requirements.” –  Farah Naz Ahmad

“I’d like to see more government campaigns about the incentives on offer to homeowners. Most people aren’t aware of current rebates and 0% loans you can get to upgrade to be more sustainable. Areas like insulation, lighting, heating and cooling are easy fixes that have a huge impact on carbon emissions with the bonus of reducing utility bills.  It’d also be great if planning permission (like for an extension) was contingent on fitting solar panels or an underground heat source.” – Michelle Tyler

Against Building Energy Codes:

“When construction teams “build to code,” what does that really mean? Unfortunately, it often means complying with the bare minimum of legal requirements. No reputable builder will defy codes intentionally, but if builders’ only goal is to make sure a property isn’t illegal, they may not have incentive to go above and beyond with quality or safety.”- Carla Williams of Williams Brothers Corporation of America

Read more:

Building Energy Codes: Policy Overview and Good Practices – National Renewable Energy Laboratories

Building Energy Codes Program – U.S. Department of Energy

Global Approaches: A Comparison of Building Energy Codes in 15 Countries – American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy


Electrify Everything

Electric Pole Sunset Landscape | Free Stock Photo | LibreShot

What is it: In buildings new and old, a recent push from climate advocates has been to electrify everything. This push means to eliminate aspects of buildings common to everyday life that directly use fossil fuels, such as gas water heaters, gas stovetops, heating systems that use direct fuel, and more. All of these household functions can be completed using electricity at affordable rates while still being highly effective. The goal, thus, is to shift their functions to be powered by the electric grid rather than require the direct burn of fossil fuels and the resultant emissions. While fossil fuels still power a large portion of the electricity we all use today, the motivation is that when you create buildings that are all-electric then as the grid gets filled with more clean energy sources the carbon-intensity of those functions will drop, whereas direct burning of fuel will remain harmful to the climate in perpetuity. Because building systems typically get installed and used for decades, installing all-electric functionality today while the grid still requires many fossil fuels is a forward-looking approach to ensuring the more renewable grid of tomorrow will soon power these functions.

Is it enacted anywhere: The 2022 update to California’s Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards, as prepared by the California Energy Commission, is poised to move forward with all-electric requirements in new construction.

In Favor of Electrifying Everything:

“These local codes and ordinances are focused on new construction, because there’s no question about the economics. It’s cheaper and faster to build all-electric than with gas because you don’t have to connect the building to the gas main in the street, and there’s no gas plumbing in the building.” – Pierre Delforge of Natural Resources Defense Council

“Major progress is needed in beneficial electrification, particularly in the buildings sector. The number one source of emissions in New York is buildings, and that’s not surprising because heating needs lead to high power use and methane emissions from natural gas used for heating. Addressing emissions from buildings, both homes and commercial buildings, has not been a historical emphasis in New York or in the United States, but is so important. For example, I’ve been calling for banning fossil fuels in all new construction of homes and commercial buildings, an action taken in numerous U.S. cities and in Denmark.” – Robert (Bob) W. Howarth, Ph.D. The David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology Cornell University, Ithaca, NY USA

Against Electrifying Everything:

“The average cost of U.S. GHG emissions reductions achieved by policy-driven residential electrification would range between $572 and $806 per metric ton of CO2 reduced, which is significantly higher than the estimated cost of other GHG reduction options.” – American Gas Association 

Read more:

The Economics of Electrifying Buildings – Rocky Mountain Institute

Building Electrification: Research Perspectives On Technologies, Policies, and Mitigation Strategies

Electric Texas: Emission and Grid Impacts of All-Electric Residential Heating – Pecan Street


Appliance Energy Standards

appliance energy standards climate change

What is it: While building energy codes cover the structure of a building, appliance energy codes instead cover the energy efficiency of products that typically go within buildings. Between federally mandated minimum efficiencies and voluntary stretch goals for the most energy-efficient products (such as ENERGY STAR), this type of policy analyzes how much energy common products (e.g., light bulbs, washing machines, ceiling fans) use and push the manufacturers to match the most efficient ones on the market.

Is it enacted anywhere: The United States, through the Appliance and Equipment Standards Program, covers the efficiency of residential and commercial appliances in accordance with a 1975 act of Congress.

In Favor of Appliance Energy Standards:

“Efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings set in the first and second terms combined will reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030, equivalent to nearly one-half of the carbon pollution from the entire U.S. energy sector for one year—while continuing to cut families’ energy bills.”- Former President Barack Obama

“We find no evidence to suggest that more stringent energy efficiency standards hurt consumers by increasing price or lowering quality. Rather, we find evidence that price declines and quality improvements accelerate with stricter standards, which unambiguously improves consumer welfare, excluding external pollution-related benefits”- Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment

Against Appliance Energy Standards:

“The goal is to reduce energy bills, but even DOE admits that for some consumers, these standards raise the up-front price of appliances more than what will be earned back in the form of energy savings. This was particularly true of air conditioner standards but also refrigerators and several others. Low-income and senior households are most likely to experience net costs, according to the agency.”- Ben Lieberman, senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former counsel for House Energy and Commerce Committee

Read more:

Appliance and Equipment Standards Program – U.S. Department of Energy

Fact Sheet: Energy Efficiency Standards for Appliances, Lighting and Equipment – Environmental and Energy Study Institute

National Standards – Appliance Standards Awareness Project


Industrial Energy Efficiency Measures

industrial energy efficiency climate change

What is it: The industrial sector, which encompasses business including (but not limited to) manufacturing, refining, and mining, is an incredibly significant source of energy use globally. The public policy levers that can be used to encourage or mandate efficiency across the industrial sector are varied, and include requirements to purchase more efficient equipment, encouraging best practices, and incentivizing retrofits and behaviors that reduce energy use.

Is it enacted anywhere: According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, federal industrial efficiency measures include incentives, technical assistance, and R&D, while some states offer these measures and further some local jurisdictions also provide incentives to industrial efficiency improvements.

In Favor of Industrial Energy Efficiency Measures:

“The industrial sector represents a big opportunity for low-cost energy savings from utility energy efficiency programs. In general, investments in energy efficiency lower operating costs for manufacturers, which increases their productivity and improves competitiveness. When these investments are made through utility programs, businesses get the added value of access to technical expertise, project implementation support, and financial incentives that reduce initial costs.”- Meegan Kelly, Senior Research Analyst at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

“Governments play a vital role in driving industry to adopt energy-saving and low-carbon practices. Most countries now have some kind of energy efficiency policy in place, and efforts are also ramping up in many developing countries that have large, energy-intensive industry sectors”- Jigar Shah, President of Generate Capital Inc.

“It’s not the sexiest of topics, but proper maintenance of the cooling coils in cooling and refrigeration equipment—which means coil cleaning, filter replacement– is associated with a 17-20% energy savings, and currently 500 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent are emitted each year globally in indirect emissions from poor cleaning and servicing of HVAC and refrigeration equipment. Policymakers need to know about this, and governments need to require coil cleaning of refrigeration units if they’re running in either food service or healthcare. In these industries, if you run a unit with clogged coils then the food and medicine contained therein might not be held at the right temperature, which is a health concern. These requirements would be analogous to auto emissions and safety maintenance and inspections that are required, so policymakers can the same approach to improve safety and reduce industrial emissions.” – Richard P. Fennelly, COO of CoilPod LLC

Against Industrial Energy Efficiency Measures:

“Producers have a much better ability to meet consumers’ demands than any government mandate or subsidy program. Congress should recognize how markets have improved energy efficiency in the U.S. It should:

 Prevent new efficiency standards for any new appliances and federal funding for efficiency improvements in manufacturing processes and residential, industrial, and commercial buildings.”- Nicholas Loris, Deputy Director of Thomas A. Roe Institute

Read more:

Industrial Energy Efficiency Programs – American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

Making the Case for Inclusive Industrial Energy Efficiency Policy – Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

Energy Efficiency: Industry – International Energy Agency


Industrial Emissions Restrictions

industrial carbon emissions climate change

What is it: In addition to tackling climate change through improving industrial sector efficiency, policy measures can also directly mandate restricted carbon emissions from industrial players.  Such measures can be necessary in tandem with efficiency because they will help to restrict indirect emissions, such as those from the oil and gas production industries, which is accomplished through industry-specific measures (such as covering emissions from oil and gas wells or pollutants emitted by cement kilns) or measures covering all subsectors, such as performance standards for greenhouse gases generally.

Is it enacted anywhere: The United States has covered emissions in the industrial sector through the Clean Air Act, though the current administration has indicated an intent to review and possibly rescind such regulations, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

In Favor of Industrial Emissions Restrictions:

“Policymakers working on climate change at the federal and state level have so far largely shied away from regulating heavy industry, which directly contributes about one-sixth of the country’s carbon emissions. Instead, they’ve focused on decarbonizing the electricity sector through actions like promoting wind and solar power.

But even as power generation has gotten cleaner, those overlooked industrial plants and factories have become a larger source of climate pollution.”- Brad Plumer, energy and climate reporter for the New York Times

“Carolyn Fischer, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, recently proposed a different idea: performance standards. Fischer’s plan would establish a benchmark for emissions in each sector. Enterprises that exceed the benchmark would pay a penalty, but that payment would buy a tradable credit. If enterprises stay below their benchmarks, they can sell credits. The benchmark would increase with production, which would prevent enterprises from reducing production to sell more credits. Enterprises profit from the system as they produce more but emit less. The beauty of this system is that as it spreads it effectively produces the same carbon market that would be created by a more straightforward carbon price.” – Jeff McMahon, Senior Contributor for Green Tech at Forbes


Against Industrial Emissions Restrictions:

“This study highlights the fact that regulatory measures are an inefficient way to achieve climate goals. While all examined scenarios resulted in significant job and economic impacts, scenarios that allow more flexibility achieve the same or greater emission reductions at a lower economic cost. The analysis also shows that in the next 10 years, regulating the industrial sector to achieve NDC goals would be responsible for most of the overall impact on the economy. Additionally, the study illustrates that electric sector reductions are relatively less expensive than reductions from the industrial sector, which generally is comprised of far smaller emissions sources. It would be much less costly to allow other sectors to purchase credits from the electric sector for emission reductions than to meet NDC targets on their own. The study also illustrates the challenges associated with emissions leakage. Regardless of which regulatory scenario is pursued, substantial leakage is likely to undermine environmental goals unless other countries impose similarly stringent emissions restrictions.”- American Council for Capital Formation

Read more:

Controlling Industrial Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

Industry: Tracking Clean Energy Progress – International Energy Agency

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Industrial Sector: Policies, Programs and Opportunities for Energy-Efficiency – American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy


Creating a Climate Resilient Built Environment

A Crisis of Opportunity | Article | EESI

What is it: Some of the most devastating impacts from a changing climate will come from the way nature will come to interact with our existing infrastructure and built environment. Rising sealevels will increase flooding and put coastal property at risk; more frequent and stronger hurricanes put countless towns and cities at risk of direct hits; higher temperatures and more frequent droughts are already causing risk to life and buildings across California. Regardless of the approach to reducing emissions we take and how that can slow down the impacts of climate change, among the most important complementary types of policies will come by planning for these future climate impacts in a way that can minimize potential health and safety hazards and the risk that entire communities will find themselves in the path of devastation from climate impacts. Strategies can include moving critical infrastructure further from shorelines or even elevating properties above likely sea-level rise, instituting preventative measures that can mitigate how far wildfires spread, and other forward-looking infrastructure approaches to allow towns and cities to withstand the impacts that still may come.

Is it enacted anywhere: As the U.S. region that has already been the first and potentially hardest hit by impacts from climate change, Gulf Coast states have embraced initiatives and pushed for funding for policies that can utilize nature-based resilience for their communities.

In Favor of Creating a Climate Resilient Built Environment:

“Suppose we could somehow end global warming tomorrow.  We would still be confronted with the inevitability of extreme weather and climate events due to natural climate variability and oscillations in the climate system — such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, etc., which produce costly and damaging extreme events (like flash floods and flash droughts) around the world.  Therefore, I think it is wise to make investments and take actions to reduce our climate-related risks and make our human and nature-based systems more resilient to extreme events whether one believes in global warming or not.  Smart resilience-building investments we make today will provide co-benefits and compounding dividends for decades into the future.” – David Herring, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Program Office

Against Creating a Climate Resilient Built Environment:

Upon proposal to repeal rule requiring federal agencies to take climate change into account when assessing environmental impacts of infrastructure: “The environmental review process designed to improve decision-making has become increasingly complex and difficult to navigate..Significant uncertainty and delays that can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.” – President Donald Trump

Read more:

Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience – Global Commission on Adaptation

Built Environment – U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit

Building a Climate-Resilient City: The Built Environment – International Institute for Sustainable Development



This page is a part of the Solar Tribune Series on how individuals and policymakers can tackle climate change. Click here to see the overview of this series and see the other categories of action.

Recent Posts