Massive & Immediate Carbon Reductions: The Case for Continuous Improvement

In Reinventing Green Building, I make a strong case that we're missing out on massive carbon reductions by only focusing on "leadership" or "leading edge" strategies such as LEED and Net Zero buildings.  

There should be a place to recognize committed and prolonged efforts (especially by government agencies and large companies/institutions) delivering annual improvements that cumulatively, over a 10-year period, will deliver real total reductions in carbon emissions, without requiring participants to meet minimum performance standards. Like the mythical Hotel California, you could check in easily, but once you made a public commitment there would be no way to check out, to return to your old way of doing business.

But the truth must be told: If all green building certification systems now on the market are destined to reach less than 5-10 percent of the US building area and less than 1-2 percent of the buildings, do we really need them at all?

Consider this simple idea: a 25 percent improvement in energy use (about what LEED buildings are getting on average) in 4 percent of the building stock (about where LEED currently reaches) is less than half (only 40 percent) of what we could get with a modest 5 percent improvement in 50 percent of the building stock (or a still-modest 10 percent improvement in a quarter of the building stock).

If our overriding concern must be cutting carbon emissions, and everything else that doesn’t directly deal with climate change and its related effects is just “noise,” or “nice to have” but not “must have” building attributes, why shouldn’t we figure out how to get half the existing building stock to become somewhat more efficient, instead of worrying about making a relative handful of high-end buildings “really green”?

In this respect, we must ask: Has LEED become irrelevant to achieving building sustainability, especially with respect to cutting global carbon emissions more rapidly? If so, what new approach (or approaches) would prove more relevant and create a faster response to the carbon issue? Let’s take a look at several approaches that are already used in to reduce carbon emissions from buildings. 

Founded on continuous improvement, a well-established philosophy and business practice, this scenario offers an entry point to sustainability, based on an organization’s serious multiyear commitment to improving current operations by a fixed amount each year. I envision large organizations such as the US military, state university systems, major retailers, etc., with established command-and-control structures, each with hundreds (if not thousands) of buildings and facilities (consider government buildings and also the retail sector) becoming the first to want to make their Sustainability Commitment a reality.

Federal Center South, Seattle, WA. Occupied by US Army Corps of Engineers. Courtesy of ZGF Architects LLP. Photography by Benjamin Benschneider

Federal Center South, Seattle, WA. Occupied by US Army Corps of Engineers. Courtesy of ZGF Architects LLP. Photography by Benjamin Benschneider

In this approach, I envision grafting the continuous improvement idea onto existing programs for such systems as the International Council of Shopping Centers’ (ICSC) Property Efficiency Scorecard, or BOMA International’s BOMA 360 program, perhaps in cooperation with a sophisticated energy or sustainability-oriented nonprofit.

Within the US government, President Obama’s 2015 executive order mandating sustainability improvements for federal agencies, ties in well to this scenario but needs an implementation program, perhaps through the well-known Federal Energy Management Program or the Interagency Sustainability Working Group, aided by some technologically savvy help from the General Services Administration, the government’s main property owner and operator.

Shouldn't we have a rating system or "eco-label" for continuous improvement? What do you think?