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  • Jessica Zimmer

Supreme Court’s EPA Ruling Doesn’t Have to Doom Building Decarbonization

High energy prices, public awareness of climate change, and new technologies in energy use all encourage decarbonization of the built environment, according to the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a 100-year-old center of building science based in the U.K.

Credit: VoltaroEnergy/Pixabay

“Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, the real estate industry has the knowledge and tools it needs to reach net zero emissions and remove greenhouse gas emissions from Earth’s atmosphere. Investors and insurers see climate change as a risk,” said Breana Wheeler, U.S. director of operations at BRE’s Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM). BREEAM, which is administered by BRE, is a validation and certification platform for sustainable building performance.

Wheeler said initially, the commercial real estate industry was fairly disappointed by the ruling in West Virginia.

“The EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants was an important lever to combat climate change. Yet after the ruling we strengthened our resolve to encourage efficient building and renovation. There are a number of ways to cut waste,” said Wheeler.

Cities are a starting point

Wheeler advocates for cities acting as leaders to encourage property owners to decarbonize. Cities are responsible for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). In the U.S., the buildings sector contributes to about 12.5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions from buildings have risen during recent years. The trend can be reversed.

“Cities have the power to set building performance standards (BPS), policies that require owners to meet performance targets for energy use over time. In California, Title 24, the Building Energy Efficiency Standards, are quite strict. Many cities in the state add requirements on top of the state code to go even further,” said Wheeler.

New buildings tend to have electric appliances such as heat pumps that reduce the use of fossil fuels to cool and heat interiors.

“The most concerning issue is renovation of existing building stock. Cities need to communicate with insurers to help owners understand the performance of a building and make improvements. Owners need this data to demonstrate they understand a risk, like burning fossil fuels on-site, and find ways to reduce or eliminate it,” said Wheeler.

How insurers and communities play a role

Insurance companies have the potential to greatly assist property owners by sharing data from virtual models, such as digital twins. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the data gathered by the Internet of Things (IoT) can assist an insurer with creating a model of a building or group of buildings to explain inefficiencies and risks in an area.

“Insurers have access to the best climate modeling available. They can be an important part of a city and developer’s planning process. Sometimes property owners need to be reminded that there is no right to be insured,” said Wheeler.

Increased premiums and the unavailability of insurance are warning signs that a building is unsustainable.

“When an insurer has seen or expects to see a property incur multiple instances of damage, notifications to a property owner can motivate the owner to mitigate risks,” said Wheeler.

Insurers also have the power to show property owners that a building or group of buildings is not an island.

“You have the building, and then you have the block, the neighborhood, and the community. Property owners and insurers should share information to see what common concerns exist,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler said community resiliency is a reason to renovate existing buildings.

“A building may be worth a great deal. How much is it worth if the community around it is devastated by a disaster like a flood or fire? Finding ways to work together and measure everyone’s progress lowers risk,” said Wheeler.

How the pandemic changed viewpoints

In the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees in non-essential sectors were allowed to work from home. The shift in where individuals worked put a spotlight on how built environments could be made more sustainable.

NASA data from 2020 reveal carbon dioxide emissions fell by 5.4% that year. Yet during 2020, the overall amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere grew at about the same rate as in prior years.

The revelation that even a global halt to many energy-consuming activities shows more action is needed.

“When we saw the pandemic didn’t lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that was a wake-up call. We need to do more planning to estimate the cost of climate change,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler added learning the costs of renovation allows for creative ideas for assistance.

“We should look at what we’re spending now and what it will cost to build or modify structures to be energy-efficient. Then we can find ways like government incentives to help property owners make changes. This is preferable to allowing global warming. We don’t want cities to continue being ‘heat islands,’” said Wheeler.

Wheeler also shared BRE is actively working to investigate and address issues like fuel poverty.

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“Modifying the built environment is a proven way to help the public, particularly urban residents, become aware of how they can become advocates for sustainability. A more holistic view, one that involves cities, developers, property owners, insurers, and communities, will be what pushes property owners to make buildings as efficient and green as possible,” said Wheeler.


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