In NYC energy efficiency circles, 2015 may be looked back on as the year when the veil of magical thinking was lifted and we began, as a community, to properly focus on the actual performance of our built environment. As more data is gathered by New York City though the Benchmarking and Energy Audit laws, a clearer picture is emerging about how our buildings use energy, the most likely opportunities for reducing that usage, and the very real challenges of doing so. At the same time, the audacious goal set forth by Mayor de Blasio to reduce our carbon emissions 80% by 2050 has the building, design, and real estate industries sifting data, analyzing our energy codes, and studying global efforts in this field to determine the right pathway for New York City. It’s a convergence of data from both ends, on one side the actual energy used by our buildings and on the other a concrete understanding of how to reach our goals.
A pair of global news items exemplify this convergence: the Pope taking a stance on climate change and the revelation that Volkswagen has been using software in millions of their diesel engines to cheat emissions standards around the world. But first, a word about two 2015 BEEx reports directly related to this convergence.
First, the completion, and subsequent update, of Retrofitting Affordability, our analysis of the benchmarking and audit data in the multifamily sector. This extensive study segments the NYC multifamily sector and outlines the retrofit strategies proposed during energy audits for each segment. The report also maps those buildings with high opportunities for savings against data on affordability, providing a road map for policy makers that highlights where energy efficiency potential and affordable housing intersect. The Retrofitting Affordability report can be found here.
Second, the publication of Passive NYC, a high level snapshot of the state of the Passive House standard in New York City and State. Passive House is one of the few standards in the world that has consistently delivered buildings with the ultra-low energy-use levels needed if our buildings are going to meaningfully contribute to the fight against climate change. The Passive NYC report outlines the basic fundamentals of the Passive House standard, how it has been applied to date in New York City, the current local impediments to its application, and how jurisdictions around the world have incorporated Passive House into their regulations and energy codes. Passive NYC can be found here.
These reports exemplify the confluence of measuring what’s happening on the ground, while looking ahead to understand what we need to do to achieve our goals. So how does all this relate to the Pope and Volkswagen?
When the Pope issued a call for climate action in September, it represented a massive shift in the conversation. Setting aside any theological discussions, or parsing of his exact message, at the most basic level we were treated to the leader of a global (and very conservative) organization coming down firmly on the side of mitigating climate change. As with our buildings, so with global climate – most everyone is starting to understand what the data is telling us. If you think that’s not such a big deal, consider that this development had our most conservative US politicians proclaiming that the Pope should “leave science to the scientists.” Which is what, uhhhhhm, us liberals have been saying all along. It would be easy to gloat and proclaim a victory for science over magical thinking, but those of us that have been calling for climate action for years should be aware of our own abilities at self deception. Which brings us to Volkswagen.
The Volkswagen story is of course primarily one of corporate malfeasance, the brazenness of which should give us pause. They clearly didn’t think they’d be caught. (And in some sense, they weren’t. The authorities didn’t catch VW, independent researchers did.) But it is also a story of self deception, a liberal version of magical thinking – that we can have our climate change mitigation without any impact on our lives. I myself very nearly bought one of the VW’s under discussion, and for exactly the reason they thought I might – I was transfixed by a car that had low emissions and tons of horsepower. I could have my cake and eat it as well. (I’d love to tell you that some premonition of this implausibility kept me from purchasing the car, but I just couldn’t afford the payments.)
The moral of the story is that there are no easy fixes to the fix we’ve got ourselves in. We’ve organized our entire society around cheap fossil fuels, from the sort of communities most of us live in (fuel intensive suburbs), to the food most of us eat (fuel intensive industrial agriculture, brought to those suburbs in trucks), to the buildings we live and work in (leaky, fuel intensive structures, that most of us drive to and from every day.) There is no miracle fuel that will simply replace fossil fuels, and much will need to change if we are going to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. The good news is that making these changes should result in both a more robust economy and more equitable, resilient communities. We just need to make sure magical thinking doesn’t get in our way.