Also Blame Where The Buildings Are

The “blame the buildings” series (here, here, and here) was meant to emphasize how energy use in buildings accounts for a bigger chunk of total CO2 emissions than is generally recognized. Of course it also matters where buildings are located relative to other buildings and services, since location has a big impact on transportation-related CO2 emissions.

The Urban Land Institute has just published a report called “Growing Cooler,” that attempts to quantify the effects of land use patterns on transportation-based CO2 emissions. The authors conducted an extensive literature review, which revealed that, as a rule of thumb, compact development reduces driving by 30 percent. And the bottom line: by 2050, if 60 to 90% of new development is compact as opposed to status-quo sprawl, transportation-related CO2 emissions would be reduced from current trends by seven to ten percent.

Seven percent may not sound like much, especially when you factor in that transportation accounts for about 1/3 of total CO2 emissions, so that we’re actually only talking about a two percent total reduction. But, as the authors note, that seven percent reduction must be appreciated in perspective. Assuming business as usual, the U.S. Energy Information Administration currently forecasts that between 2005 and 2030 vehicle miles traveled by cars and light trucks will increase by 59%, with a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions of 41%, as shown in the graph below.

In the context of of motor vehicle fuel efficiency, the authors estimate that if 60 percent of new development is compact, by 2030 the transportation-related CO2 emissions reductions would be equivalent to raising the U.S. fleetwide efficiency to 32 mpg by 2020. Thus, every resident of a compact neighborhood would provide roughly the same environmental benefit as driving a hybrid does today.

The seven percent also does not include CO2 emissions reductions that would result from the higher energy-efficiency of buildings in compact developments (estimated at 20 percent), or from the forests that would be preserved with compact development.

Overall, what all this is saying to me is that there will be no magic bullet solutions. CO2 emissions are so deeply embedded in our way of life that we must go after every potential means for reductions, as aggressively as possible. The authors of the ULI report were probably hoping to be perceived as realistic by choosing 60% compact development as a goal. We need to be shooting for 100%.

4 Responses to “Also Blame Where The Buildings Are”

  1. Dan Staley

    IIRC, that report (or a similar) showed that SFA uses far less energy than SFD (common walls lose less energy).

    I’m not familiar with building energy savings from “compact developments”, unless the gains from res over commercial is factored in.

    We must also look at the savings of a 1500 sf home vs a 3000 sf home, energy losses through commercial fenestration or transparency code (“but it makes our streets walkable!!”), the fight the Rocky Mt News is waging against replacing incandescents with CFLs, drugging our youth by placing them in front of an electronic device, etc.

    These are easy wins to gain efficiencies (OK, maybe not taking away the Xbox, but still). But changing lifestyle choices as a solution, no. Not until we start charging for waste and real prices for energy. Will that happen? Maybe when Danny’s kids are my age. Will it be in time? Eh.

  2. “We Don’t Know How to Get There” | hugeasscity

    […] This morning I attended a breakfast meeting put on by the Urban Land Institute featuring a presentation by Ewe Brandes on their recently published book “Growing Cooler,” which details the relationship between housing density and greenhouse gas emissions (see related post here). The room was filled with the likes of Diane Sugimura and Joe Tovar, along with the typical ULI real estate development crowd and a smattering of architects. […]

  3. Some Rules Are Begging To Be Broken | hugeasscity

    […] But regardless of the context of that specific site, from the perspective of sustainability, the upzone is a no-brainer. Indeed, density in Seattle’s neighborhoods is a lot more controversial than it should be, given the City’s reputation for a green citizenry. It is indisputable that densification is a critical development strategy for achieving long-term sustainability. 23rd and Union is about a mile from the downtown core of one of the biggest cities on the west coast. If we can’t put a six-story building there, we can’t in good conscience utter another word about how green we supposedly are. […]

  4. Two Things Americans Don’t Like | hugeasscity

    […] The many benefits of compact development have long been recognized, and were first officially sanctioned in the State of Washington with the 1990 Growth Management Act. In more recent years, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has been increasingly recognized as yet another advantage of compact development. The Seattle Reality Check was the nation’s first to include GHG emissions analysis for the development scenarios generated during the event. The team led by Mithun performed the analysis for three of the scenarios on the fly, and presented results showing significantly lower emissions for the densest development. […]

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