Will the policies of President Donald Trump derail the sector’s efforts to avoid catastrophic climate change? We hear three expert viewpoints.

On 10 November, 2016, built environment professionals gathered for the second annual Buildings Day at the UN Conference of Parties (COP). Held in Marrakech, Morocco, one year after diplomats reached a landmark global climate accord in Paris, the session was supposed to be celebratory in tone.

With the world looking forward to rolling up its sleeves to meet the new 1.5ºC global warming target, the crowd was eager to dive into the specifics of how the industry would do its part to deliver on the Paris agreement. Instead, the mood was more sombre. The unexpected election of climate-change sceptic Donald Trump to the US presidency sent shockwaves through the conference hall. Would Trump pull the world’s largest economy out of a diplomatic deal two decades in the making?

Trump has yet to announce US withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Under the terms of the accord, a country must wait four years to formally withdraw, although some White House lawyers believe there are loopholes to hasten that process. Nevertheless, Trump has most definitely taken actions to scale back US commitments to the Paris agreement. He has issued an executive order to nullify Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). In addition, his proposed budget has zeroed contributions for international aid to climate-friendly projects. Below are three perspectives on what Trump’s moves mean for the built environment in the US and around the world.

Researching for an answer

Ryan Colker Director, Consultative Council, US National Institute of Building Sciences, Washington DC

The Paris agreement set up national and international goals. But the agreement itself will not create change. Without programmes behind the Paris agreement’s priorities, the intent to deliver on US commitments essentially goes away. One of the building industry’s concerns with the Trump administration is support for the underlying research that supports our ability to address climate change. Another is a federal leadership that supports an attitude where the industry feels compelled to address climate change. Relative to adaptation, the participation of federal agencies is important for the advancement, adoption and enforcement of building codes. They share the latest knowledge and research on risks in the built environment.

Energy codes are developed by the private sector with collaboration from a range of different stakeholders: state and local representatives, architects, engineers, housebuilders, advocates and federal agencies. It’s a very consensus-based process. If you cut out the federal perspective, not only do you lose the national vision, you also lose technical expertise.

The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory evaluates various scenarios that inform the energy code. If we were thinking about changing insulation materials in walls, for example, they would calculate potential energy savings and cost impact.

There is not yet a smoking gun from the administration regarding the building sector. At this point, the budget is just a White House proposal. It has to go through Congress, where there is support for these programmes. Congress recognises that energy efficiency ends up saving businesses money. With these savings, the private sector could invest in new jobs or equipment that makes them more competitive. It is hard to say what the end result would be at this point.

It is at a state, local government and industry level where we are going to see activity moving forward. Professional groups such as architects and engineers have set goals for their fields to address some of these key challenges. Cities have adopted the Paris agreement and are working toward that end, whether setting zero-energy building goals, advancing improvements within their own portfolio of buildings or going above and beyond the minimum baseline energy code. There will be action, but certainly having that attention and addressing some of those cross-cutting issues at a federal level would really be important.

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Relinquising the lead

Yunus Arikan Head of Global Policy and Advocacy, ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability, Bonn, Germany

On the global level, there is a strong movement to advance the energy efficiency of buildings. Developed and developing countries alike, as well as the private sector, have made firm commitments, notably at the Buildings Day convenings held during the last two global COP gatherings in Paris and Marrakech. It is not realistic to expect that Trump’s order will have any negative impact on these efforts. To the contrary, these actors may decide to get more ambitious, assuming that US building professionals will want to become more involved following Trump’s moves.

Of much more concern is the current orientation of the Trump administration to repeal most legislation on environment protection, and drastically cut funding to climate mitigation and adaptation actions, both in the US and abroad.

When the Paris agreement was reached, the US also signed a pledge to contribute $3bn to the Green Climate Fund, the main finance instrument funding climate projects worldwide. Barack Obama delivered only one-third of that pledge before leaving office, and Trump has zeroed out further contributions. In addition, between 2010 and 2015, the US Agency for International Development allocated $15.6bn for climate projects, from adaptation efforts and clean energy initiatives to sustainable landscape activities. Part of this money went to fund local projects in cities, towns and villages across five continents.

Although the March budget proposal put forward by President Trump is just a proposal, and is likely to change substantially going through Congress, the general direction is clear: cut as much funding for climate change and environment protection as possible.

This will certainly have an impact on projects for urban resilience and energy efficiency in buildings in many regions. Most at risk are US coastal areas, where large-scale projects are needed to protect low-lying parts of the built environment, to say nothing about the potential impact in terms of lives lost to coastal flooding.

The new architecture of climate action is flexible enough to absorb the shock of the US relinquishing its leadership role. It is hard to make assumptions as to what might happen, but one thing is for sure: this is a test for the climate community – countries, local and regional governments, businesses, and civil society. Market forces are largely working in favour of the low-carbon transition; new building codes and guidelines on infrastructure are progressively incorporating the need for a sustainable built environment in cities; climate finance is ticking up, albeit slowly.

As big and relevant as the US is, we can be confident that other countries will ensure the world stays on track to reach a level of commitment required for global warming to stay under 1.5°C – and stave off the threat of more extreme and more frequent adverse climate events.

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Ratings at risk

Jennifer Layke, Global Director, Energy Program, World Resources Institute, Washington DC

The Trump administration’s budget proposal, which was announced on 16 March, would cut or eliminate key building and technology programmes. The Energy Star scheme, for example, provides a common rating approach for the efficiency of appliances and buildings. When consumers choose appliances, Energy Star labels make it easy to see energy consumption and costs, and compare the product to the best and worst performers.

In the buildings sector, Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager is a building energy database that allows building owners and managers to input information on their building and benchmark its performance against similar buildings. For building managers, this database has been a core tool for managing energy for commercial buildings.

In the electricity sector, Trump’s rejection of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan eliminates new regulatory requirements for CO2 reductions. The CPP allows states to broaden possible electricity sector reductions to actions that go beyond power plants themselves. States can reduce pollution by adding renewable energy or cutting demand through energy-efficiency measures. Across many state plans, states and utilities were assessing ways to scale up both renewable energy and energy efficiency to decrease dependence on polluting energy sources. Without the CPP, it is unclear if states will continue to look at energy efficiency and renewable energy as critical resources beyond the existing utility requirements or plans already in state law.

Finally, the built environment has infrastructure that needs investment. Building renovation rates in the US, as in many parts of the developed world, hover at around 1%-2% annually. Tax policies and incentives could improve this rate. We have not yet seen how and if the infrastructure proposal that Trump has touted will allow for increased investment in upgrading the US’s building stock. However, based on the budget proposal, this administration does not seem to be prioritising energy-related programmes that were used to support federal efficiency programmes.

Early signs point to a clear lack of interest from the administration in improving the productivity and quality of homes, schools, hospitals and commercial buildings through better heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, lighting upgrades, insulation and window replacements. These common-sense improvements can help people struggling in both rural and urban communities to afford their energy bills and stay safe and comfortable where they work, live and play.

This article was originally featured in the June 2017 edition of Modus magazine — the Earth issue

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