Four Ways to Shrink Your Building’s Carbon Footprint

08/01/2007 |

Whether you choose to go carbon neutral or simply start to lower your building's energy usage, your actions can reduce CO2 emissions and help put a stop to global warming

Within your organization, who is best positioned to change procedures, set standards and targets, and cut down on energy use? Sure, C-suite executives have a responsibility when it comes to global warming, but you're the muscle behind their words. Without you, the building's carbon emissions won't decrease, energy use won't lessen, and promises won't be put into practice. It's up to you to carry out these actions, making them more than just words.

In the next 25 years, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, CO2 emissions from buildings are predicted to grow faster than any other sector (emissions from commercial buildings are expected to increase by 1.8 percent through 2030). It doesn't take a mastermind to figure out that the operation of commercial buildings can't continue this way. The good news is that it doesn't have to. Did you know that, if 50 percent of new commercial buildings were built to use 50-percent less energy, more than 6 million metric tons of CO2 would be saved annually for the life of the buildings (50 to 100 years)? But, we can't just sit back and talk about these numbers. Facilities professionals like you have to step up, take this information to heart, and make it a reality.

Stepping up, however, doesn't mean that you have to declare to the world that your buildings are all going carbon neutral starting tomorrow (although that would be quite ambitious). If focusing on emission reductions is something new for your organization, it's okay to start out slow. So you can't go carbon neutral right away (or ever). So what? You don't have to put a label on what you're doing, or make a claim that you can't live up to. You don't even have to spend lots of money to make a difference. Starting small is okay - it's starting somewhere, and that's the key.

Know the Size of your Footprint
Before you decide how much energy you want to cut or how much CO2 you want to keep out of the atmosphere, you need to understand what effect your buildings are currently having on the environment. Fiona Cousins, principal at Arup, New York City, recommends evaluating your personal environmental footprint first. "It's sometimes easier to understand what ‘carbon neutral' means if you look at your individual footprint first rather than your building's footprint. Go to one of the websites you can use to measure your personal carbon footprint and find out the things you do that really make a difference. You get a feel for the things that have an impact - how much energy you use in your buildings and what transportation you use and how often, for example." (EDITOR'S NOTE: Transportation plays a large role in global warming as well, but for the purposes of this article, we'll be talking about buildings and their effect on the environment.)

After you've got a handle on how you personally impinge on your surroundings, you're ready for the next step: Uncovering how your buildings do the same thing. There are a few ways to go about measuring your carbon footprint. You can attempt to do it yourself or you can call in some help.

If you want to do it yourself, examine your bills. "Take a look at the electricity bill and the heating bill, and convert those back into carbon emissions," says Cousins. "If you know what kind of fuel you use (No. 6, No. 2, or some kind of biodiesel), there's a carbon footprint associated with how many gallons you buy. Figuring out electricity is a little bit more difficult. You have to go to your utility provider and ask about the mix. They'll tell you that they're 10-percent nuclear, 15-percent hydro, and 75-percent fossil fuel, for example." From the information you receive, you can find out what's associated with each type (in Cousins' example, there isn't a carbon footprint associated with nuclear or hydro, so you'd only need to determine the carbon footprint associated with the fossil fuel, depending on the kind of generating plants being used).

If you want help figuring out your carbon footprint, there are several places to visit online (from the World Resources Institute/World Business Council on Sustainable Development to the U.S. EPA) that will give you options and instructions. You can also work with a third party. If you decide to become part of a larger organization, such as the Chicago Climate Exchange (see Behind the Chicago Climate Exchange), to achieve your goal, resources are available to help you determine your building's carbon footprint.

Once you know your footprint, the next step is to understand how to decrease emissions. "The easy part is figuring out how bad you are," says Cousins. "Then you have to figure out what to do about it."

That's where Buildings comes in. We've simplified this process and are giving you four "phases" to follow. You can start with Phase 1 and decide how far you want to go ...

Phase 1: Pinpoint Opportunities for Reduction
The first and easiest thing to do after you've assigned a number to your carbon footprint is to make low- and no-cost changes that will reduce the amount of energy your building is using each day. Start by turning down the heat and turning up the air-conditioning during off-peak hours (and consider adjusting the temperatures a few degrees during peak hours as well, depending on what your thermostat currently reads). The same goes for lighting. Turn lights off when you're not using them or when they're not needed due to available daylight, etc. Occupancy sensors can make a world of difference in restrooms, storage closets, conference rooms, vending areas, and other places that need light only at certain times. Also, look for lamps that can be removed or dimmed. These suggestions probably sound too basic, but you'd be surprised at how many organizations don't make them standard practice.

"We're actively looking at ways to cut electricity consumption," says Drew Torbin, sustainability analyst at ProLogis. "We are constantly speaking with outside experts as well." If you feel like you've exhausted all possibilities for reducing energy usage, take a cue from ProLogis and bring in a professional who can offer a new perspective and present options you may not have thought of. If you don't want to pay for counsel from an expert, think about implementing one of Sunnyvale, CA-based Yahoo!'s ideas: The organization has asked its website users (via Yahoo! Answers) to provide suggestions for ways to cut down on energy consumption and CO2 emissions. According to Erin Carlson, senior manager, many of these ideas are being put into action. Your company may not have the reach that Yahoo! does, but that doesn't mean you can't ask tenants/occupants and other staff members for some suggestions of their own. You never know what could come as a result.

Behavior change is another part of reducing usage. Provide education about the differences that tenants/occupants can make by shutting off computers and monitors for the day, turning off task lights and fans when they're not at their workstations, etc. Although it can be tricky to get people to change their behavior, some manufacturers are now offering integrated software as part of their building-automation systems that can instantly provide a specific tenant/occupant with the percent of energy he/she is saving (or not saving) as a result of his/her actions. Associating a number with everyday work habits can be a motivating and inspiring factor in changing a routine.

Phase 2: Trade Out Old Systems
After you've done all you can do to reduce energy with your existing systems, it's time to think about investing in high-efficiency products that will reduce energy usage even more. "Generally, we start with the inexpensive tactics like switching to more efficient lighting and installing motion detectors, and gradually move toward bigger-ticket items such as ENERGY STAR® HVAC systems," says John Schinter, global president of energy and sustainability services, Jones Lang LaSalle, Chicago.

At Yahoo!, Carlson explains that as many energy-efficient products are being employed as possible. "We've installed window film at our headquarters campus to reduce air-conditioning. We use controls that turn off non-essential lighting. We've also retrofitted our office lighting to T5 lamps, and we're a voluntary participant in a utility load-shedding program for our headquarters." In addition, the organization is leveraging passive cooling technology and ultra-high-efficiency power supply for its data centers. A unique practice that's also saving energy for Yahoo!: using custom-built computers to minimize computer quantity and usage.

Because there is money associated with this tactic, some organizations are hesitant to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2. When it comes to finding the funds to support these purchases, many organizations rationalize the upfront costs by using the energy cost savings to pay for the equipment.

Phase 3: Make Use of Green Power
Obviously, the majority of U.S. commercial buildings need electricity to operate (as Cousins points out, there are only certain types of buildings in specific climates that can go carbon neutral without having to purchase offsets [see Phase 4]), and where your energy comes from can make a big difference in lowering carbon emissions. Solar panels, wind power, geothermal ... there are several options. To learn more about your choices when it comes to green power, check out "Green Power's Future is Now" in the June 2007 issue of Buildings magazine. Or, you can find the article online at (

Although it's not green power, you can also make switches to the type of fuel you're using. You won't stop the release of CO2 emissions by doing this, but you will reduce them. "If you're burning No. 6 oil, you might choose to burn biodiesel of some sort instead - biodiesel has a slightly lower carbon footprint associated with it. It's a complete substitution. You don't change anything, you don't make anything more efficient, and you don't make any reductions - you just change your footprint by changing your fuel," explains Cousins.

Phase 4: Purchase Carbon Offsets/Credits
After you've done all you can do in Phases 1 through 3, you're still probably emitting CO2. How can you go the rest of the way and become carbon neutral if you want to? By purchasing carbon offsets. Purchasing a carbon offset funds a project that will reduce emissions equivalent to the amount that you're still producing (projects include reforestation, wind-farm development, etc.). By purchasing a carbon offset, you're basically creating an incentive for someone else to generate carbon-neutral power in a different place.

Carbon trading is another option when your goal is carbon neutrality. "Carbon trading is really the trading of the right to emit CO2," says Torbin. What separates trading from an offset is the fact that it's regulated by a formal, legal structure. In the United States, it consists of individual organizations setting emission targets; those that can't meet their target can buy carbon credits from other organizations that exceeded their targets. "If carbon trading becomes more common (or even mandatory), energy savings will start to become more attractive. At the moment, people don't do things because they think it's too expensive and the energy payback is too long. If the energy price is volatile or is rapidly rising, as it is now, then you're much more likely to get quicker paybacks," says Cousins.

When it comes to buying carbon offsets and credits, a debate is brewing in the green community: If you're still emitting CO2, but you're just buying the right to do so (or giving money to someone else so that they can offset your emissions), are you really doing the right thing? "It's not the answer, but it's a step in the right direction when it's a part of a comprehensive strategy," explains Carlson. If your organization hasn't done much to cut down on its energy usage and chooses to deal with its carbon emissions by purchasing offsets or trading, what you're doing is essentially greenwashing your building (and your organization's image). Plus, you're spending lots of money to offset or trade carbon emissions when you could be looking for ways to reduce them first (that way, if you do decide to pursue offsets or trading as a possibility, you'll be buying less of them). "If a company is only looking at offsets and not changing their own practices as they pursue that option, then that's legitimately an area for criticism; however, most companies that are pursuing offsets are looking at it as only one part," says Carlson.

Congratulations! You're Going to Reduce CO2. Now What?
Some organizations attempt to make a guess about the amount of CO2 emissions that can be reduced in the operation of their buildings. Others closely examine available data before trying to figure it out. Regardless of the strategy you use, setting a goal for a specific time in the future (1 year, 2 years, or 5 years down the road, for example) is a good idea. Deciding that your goal is to reduce energy use by 2012 is too vague and won't help you put a specific action plan in place; however, electing to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent by June of 2009, for example, is something that's tangible. With a number and a specific timeframe to work toward, you'll be able to break down what you need to do to reach your goal.

When Yahoo! set its goal last year to become carbon neutral, it settled on 2007 as its target date (allowing a little more than a year to make it happen). "Climate change is an urgent issue now," emphasizes Carlson. "We wanted to do our part sooner rather than later. We can do it in a high-quality way by the end of 2007; if it's possible to do it now, then we figured it's better to do something now rather than wait."

Although CB Richard Ellis is going carbon neutral by 2010, it's setting smaller goals along the way to help get there. "We set a goal for 2008 to reduce energy consumption at the properties we manage for clients by 10 percent in a 125 million-square-foot office portfolio. If we're able to achieve a 10-percent reduction, that's going to save our clients about $30 million in the next year," says Steven Iaco, global head of corporate communications at New York City-based CB Richard Ellis. The ability to match a dollar figure to your energy reductions helps everyone get excited about the possibilities involved with using less energy.

Setting a goal for your organization might also help you set internal standards and benchmarks. When ProLogis chose to go carbon neutral, it also started to put together a global checklist to ensure that all its newly constructed facilities (in the United States and abroad) adhered to the same energy-efficiency and sustainability standards. "We're looking at LEED, BREEAM (the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), and CASBEE (the Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental Efficiency), and we're coming up with our own global checklist so that all our projects are being built to a certain standard of environmental quality. We will grade the buildings ourselves and score them internally, and will continue to push them so that they have, at a minimum, a CASBEE, BREEAM, or LEED status," explains Jack Rizzo, managing director of global construction at Denver-based ProLogis. And, as he points out, just because ProLogis has established a system to achieve carbon-neutral status doesn't mean that the work stops. "We set goals and objectives, and we continue to refine them, benchmark ourselves, and report on our progress." To continue to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, you have to maintain your efforts. It's a never-ending cycle of identifying areas in which to reduce energy and then figuring out what to do to make those reductions happen.

It's Time to Get Started
As you've probably figured out by now, when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions in buildings, it's all about efficiency: the amount and type of fuel and electricity that you buy, and how you use it. "It's not rocket science," Cousins promises.

The attention devoted to the topic of global warming has brought it to the mainstream. Now, all eyes seem to be pointed toward the people who can reverse the direction in which the world is headed. "I've been in the development and construction business for 35 years. I was in gas lines in the ‘70s when you had to wait 1.5 hours to get $2 worth of fuel or 2 gallons of gas. It happened again in the ‘80s. This time, it's a whole different feel," says Rizzo. "There's a significant amount of traction that's been gained over the last 2 years. It's getting everyone focused on global warming and reducing carbon emissions. It's making us set goals and making us benchmark and report against those goals."  

Leah B. Garris ( is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.

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