LEED Must Be Updated To Address Climate Change
Over the last 20 years LEED has become the dominant U.S. green building design standard and is the most widely accepted and influential green building standard globally. This is an extraordinary achievement and has made for healthier, more productive and greener homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals and public spaces for tens of millions of families, students and workers.
But success and scale breed inertia and constrain flexibility. LEED has not kept up with the accelerating urgency of climate change or the availability of low and no cost ways to deeply cut carbon, particularly from very steep declines in the cost of solar and wind that make these now the lowest cost electricity source in many states. The rapid growth in ability to buy onsite and offsite wind and solar under a power purchase agreement (PPA) structure enables 3rd party financing with a 10-25 year commitment, allowing LEED building owners to buy carbon-free power at a fixed price at or below conventional utility rates. These onsite and offsite wind and solar options are available for most LEED buildings and can allow most LEED buildings to go to 100% zero carbon power at low or no cost, and in many cases can reduce the future cost of electricity. See these slides for perspective on this.
In a world of accelerating climate change and fossil-fuel-funded denial, LEED has failed to maintain a carbon leadership role. LEED v4, as the current version of LEED launched in 2013, was not stringent enough for 2007—let alone for 2017. Many buildings receiving LEED Silver, Gold and even Platinum ratings deliver an anemic 15% or 20% lower energy use and CO2. Science dictates that serious green building standards today must deliver large reductions in CO2, and LEED must step up to this.
The moral dimension of climate change responsibility also has its deniers. Some argue that responsibility for global warming can be left to future generations who will experience the largest costs of climate change but may have more money or technologies to manage or mitigate climate change. The moral or ethical aspects of when we take on responsibility for our own contamination of the earth has been spoken to directly by leading moral figures, including the Pope. At the end of 2016, Pope Francis stated, “Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”
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A LEED building that cuts CO2 and/or energy consumption by 15% or 20% is not a material step toward decarbonization. Buildings represent over 40% of energy use and about half of the emissions changing our climate. Buildings are central to any realistic rapid transition to a low carbon economy. And LEED—as the standard bearer for high performance buildings—must be central to this transition. LEED must be a leader on climate change.
To do so LEED should immediately be revised to require deep minimum carbon reductions for each level of LEED certification, both for new LEED buildings and for LEED rating renewals.
For many or most LEED buildings, a combination of energy efficiency, onsite renewable energy (primarily solar PV) and direct long term purchase of renewable energy can cost effectively deliver 100% reduction of CO2from building energy use.
Energy efficiency technologies such as LED lights and ground-source heat pumps, solar PV, wind and batteries have over the last decade experienced deep and sustained cost reductions, making zero net carbon buildings increasingly viable. Onsite energy efficiency and renewable energy combined with power purchase agreement contracts to buy carbon-free electricity under long-term fixed-price contracts makes net-zero-carbon building operations the lowest cost option in a growing number of cities and states.
Deep cost reductions in energy efficiency and renewable energy have also made more aggressive green building standards like net-zero-energy buildings and the Living Building Challenge increasingly viable. But these newer standards effect less than one tenth of 1% of buildings, so lack the scale to rapidly drive deep carbon reductions in buildings necessary to limit the worst effects of global warming. LEED can and must step up.
If LEED fails to incorporate deep CO2 reductions as a requirement at different levels of LEED (eg minimum 50% CO2 reduction from energy use for silver, 100% CO2 reduction for platinum) it will become increasingly irrelevant. Worse, by enabling buildings that are only marginally better on CO2 to claim a green mantle, LEED could impede the rapid deep decarbonization we must achieve if we are to heed scientific consensus and the Pope’s moral call to pull back from “the limits of suicide.”
Stepping up to this role is both a moral necessity and an opportunity for LEED to reinvigorate its green leadership and to fulfill its potential to be truly transformative. This must happen now, and USGBC must lead on this.
LEEDuser welcomes your comments on this guest post by Greg Kats.
Greg has played substantial roles in developing the clean energy and green building industries, and is a long-time thought leader and investor in the transition to a low carbon economy. He is Managing Director at ARENA Investments LLC, a clean energy impact investment firm, and President of Capital E, which works with cities, corporations and financial institutions to design, scale and implement clean energy and low carbon strategies. Greg’s work on LEED includes serving on its steering committee for the first 6 years (where he led the effort to establish minimum energy performance and then led the push to reweight LEED around climate change), chairing the LEED Energy and Atmosphere technical advisory group for its first 5 years, and serving as the founding chair of the national USGBC chapter.