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Modern cities would not be possible without energy. However we are quickly outstripping our ability to generate enough energy to supply the market, especially in the developing world where demand is growing. A global concern is that at our current level of energy production we are already producing more GHG emissions than our planet can absorb. Additional power generation will only move the climate change needle, and the global temperature, further into the red. In order to manage our energy demand we must take two different tracks in tandem; become more energy efficient and switch to renewable sources of energy.

New technology combined with improved building material and design have been used to decrease the overall needs of a building, including electricity, heating and water usage. For instance, energy demand can be reduced with energy-efficient appliances, building materials with higher R-factors, co-generation power plants and energy-efficient triple-pane windows. Additionally, buildings can be designed to maximize passive solar heating, rooftop gardens are used as natural insulation, and anaerobic digesters can make energy from wastewater. Other technologies are being improved for heat transfer as well as more aesthetic integrated solar panels.

Although there have been many advancements, these technologies are being used primarily in new construction, and almost exclusively in developed countries. While there are estimates that we will need to double our housing stock by 2030, building efficiency needs to be broadly adopted and used on existing buildings to make any impact. Building Energy Efficiency Codes (BEEC) and incentives have been helpful in improving building efficiency since the energy crisis in the 1970s, but the codes can be circumvented and are not easy to patrol or enforce. One suggestion proposed is to have global BEECs, although like many international treaties an agreement on building standards across countries may be hard to implement and harder to patrol for compliance. A more adoptable proposal is to share incentives for using energy efficient materials with developers, who make the decisions but do not reap the benefits of energy savings that the building owners enjoy.

Retrofitting existing buildings is more difficult to achieve. Since energy costs are generally low in the developed world, there is little motivation to reduce energy costs with a large up-front capital improvement (i.e. replacing insulation, lighting fixtures, or reworking the plumbing system for co-generation boilers) even where there will be significant cost savings over time. The most effective way to date is public education and incentives for building owners to make a switch. This tactic has been very effective in the PV solar industry, whose fortunes have risen and fallen on Feed In Tariffs.  Another option to explore is offering reduced loan rates for energy efficiency projects.

To keep up with our current and future energy demands while preserving the climate of this planet we must move away from fossil fuels for energy generation. There has been a broad adoption of renewable energy in some developed countries over the last decade, yet this accounts for 1% of global energy generation. Broader adoption of renewable energy, along with increased improvements in energy conversion, will be necessary to reduce emissions, but may need to be marketed as cost savings.  For instance, developing countries can realize benefits of installing community solar instead of tying them into the energy grid and much greater cost.

To accomplish energy savings and efficiency, as well as reach renewable energy targets, governments must adopt clear and adaptable policy that is easy for developers to adopt into building design, construction, and retrofitting. These policies should also make it cost-effective to implement and enforce; by driving the bottom line developers are more willing to comply. Secondly, public education and opinion are critical to the success of energy savings, and are possibly the most cost-effective measure. These policies can be a win for everyone: buildings that proudly wear their LEED certification attract commercial tenants, which drives up real estate rates and tax revenue.

A question for further discussion, while we have been effective in adopting new building technology in the developed world, the developing world has had a harder time financially to meet those standards. However, there are many low-cost energy saving building methods from our past that are being re-explored, such as straw bale construction, thick adobe walls, and drastically sloped ceilings for the disbursal of heated air. Developing countries should look at some these affordable techniques for new construction, as well as new technology, to help build the next generation of energy-efficient buildings.