The building industry accounts for about 13 percent of this nation's gross domestic product. Buildings are responsible for 48 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, they consume more than 70 percent of primary electricity and 12 percent of all potable water, and they generate about half of all municipal waste.
If our "built environment" is a chief source of pollution and climate change, it can also be a valuable source of solutions. And one such solution is to build green. Green buildings reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent on average compared to conventional construction, while lowering energy consumption by some 35 percent, water consumption by 30 percent to 50 percent, and waste generation by 70 percent.
For more than a decade, the U.S. Green Building Council, whose mission is market transformation of the built environment to sustainability, has been developing tools and programs that reduce the environmental footprint of buildings and communities while improving health and profitability. Its LEED Green Building Rating System pairs a voluntary standard for building green with third-party certification. To date, 59 local jurisdictions, from New York to Salt Lake City, 18 states, and 11 federal agencies have embraced LEED as a core component of their sustainability agendas.
The building council's educational programs and publications, local chapter network, and partnerships with other organizations including Enterprise promote changes in how governments and corporations alike build.
An early commitment by government to build green develops the market for green technology and expertise by creating demand. It also develops essential local capacity to deliver goods and services -- which, in turn, keeps costs down, creates jobs, and drives innovation. Market-based incentives -- things like fast-track permitting and density bonuses for LEED-registered projects -- don't add cost to government budgets, and provide benefits to developers.
Among the areas ripest for "green" innovation are America's schools. A new study by Capital E, a clean-energy consulting firm, finds the average yearly energy savings in a single green school building could pay for two new teachers, or several hundred new computers, or 5,000 new textbooks. More than $35 billion tax dollars will be spent on K-12 school construction in 2007, and that could make for a good start.
Global climate change has local effects -- and local solutions that are already being pursued successfully in pockets around the country. Greening the building environment is one of them.
Michelle Moore is a vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council.