04/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Successful Green-Building Mandates Must Focus on Aggressive Energy Reduction

CalGREEN is designed to address the myriad of activities which contribute to carbon emissions from all buildings, residential and commercial. Among the requirements of the new mandate are water use reductions, diversion of construction waste from landfills, and use of environmentally friendly finishes. Addressing these issues is laudable, but will it distract from the essential need to address energy first and foremost in order to achieve any significant reduction in GHG emissions?

Given that buildings are responsible for roughly 40% of global energy consumption, building codes are not properly addressing GHG emissions unless they are aggressively addressing building energy efficiency.

Fortunately, California has taken a portfolio-approach to its green-building mandates, and already has among the most stringent energy codes (Part 6 of Title 24) in the nation. The latest version, which just became active Jan 1st, is benchmarked against California's goal of achieving net-zero new residential buildings by 2020 and commercial buildings by 2030. California continues to demonstrate its environmental bona fides and CalGREEN is another step in the right direction. But any state looking to model California's approach must understand that policy aimed solely at "non-energy" green building issues, and not part of a comprehensive energy efficiency plan, is inherently missing the mark.

These non-energy green building issues had been one of the main areas of criticism of the LEED certification program. In fact, in 2009, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) recognized the need for increased emphasis on energy in its release of LEED v3.0. This and other voluntary standards for green building certification are moving to make energy requirements more aggressive. As we wait for the Federal government to address the vital issue of building energy efficiency in ever-pending climate legislation, these types of voluntary standards, along with state and local government mandates, will take the lead in driving improvements.

One benefit statewide mandates like CalGREEN have is that they utilize existing resources, such as local building officials for enforcement and verification. The new CalGREEN code will place significant pressure on the existing building stock in California and give a boost to the California Performance Building Contractors Association and related organizations. Assets that pass building inspections based on the code will be able to label their buildings as CalGREEN Certified. The conversations between building inspectors and contractors will be changing, the awareness level rising, and execution receiving a higher level of scrutiny.

Together with existing energy codes, CalGREEN means the percentage of buildings that are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly in their construction and operation will continue to grow, thus addressing the related GHG emissions. This is why state-wide green building codes are so important and why other state governments would do well to model California's approach: starting with aggressive scrutiny of their energy codes and then moving to address other green building impacts.

We have millions of buildings in the U.S. that need to be made far more energy efficient if we are to achieve the GHG emissions reductions needed to address climate change. Strengthening and simplifying building codes with aggressive energy requirements at the core is the best way to get there.