The Supreme Court is certainly dominating headlines as of late. While mainstream media is focusing much of its attention on the Roe v. Wade decision, a recent ruling to limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act caught the attention of the comfort community.
The 6-3 decision essentially states that anytime an agency attempts to adopt rules that are transformational to the economy (i.e., climate change regulations), the regulation is presumptively invalid unless Congress has provided its stamp of approval.
Of course, this is a critical opinion because our Congress is, and has been for some time now, quite dysfunctional — especially on issues as politically polarizing as climate change.
The primary issue at hand was if and how the EPA can regulate coal-fired power plants, which are the single-largest source of carbon emissions. The ruling essentially eliminates the use of the Clean Air Act to require fossil fuel companies to shift their power generation from fossil fuels to other sources that emit less carbon dioxide, such as electricity.
Now, if Congress and the president want an existing agency to regulate a new issue, or even a new agency to regulate a specific set of problems, they must say so.
State administrators have considerable power when it comes to regulating the emissions believed to be responsible for climate change. They are the primary regulators of utilities through their public utilities commissions. A large portion of carbon is delivered through pipes and wires, which are regulated by public utilities, so it’s largely up to the states whether the energy is delivered via coal, gas, or renewables.
States also set building codes, which are designed to dictate long-term consumption and emissions patterns, including the where energy comes from.
Recognizing this authority, numerous leaders across several states continue to set their own policies regarding climate control. Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C., have used that authority to set standards for how much of the state’s electricity must come from clean sources by a certain time. California Gov. Gavin Newsom requested that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) examine whether and how it could become carbon-neutral by 2035, 10 years ahead of the state’s current target. He also requested the California Public Utilities Commission accelerate its goal of cutting the state’s emissions by 2030.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed a legislative package of three bills designed to strengthen New York's commitment to clean energy development and energy efficiency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The bills will increase efficiency standards for appliances, allow the state’s public service commission to enable thermal energy networks that have the ability to heat and cool multiple buildings, and more.
On the other side of the fence, several legislators applauded the Supreme Court decision.
"[This is a] huge victory against federal overreach and the excesses of the administrative state,” said Patrick Morrisey, attorney general, West Virginia, according to Reuters. This is a huge win for West Virginia, our energy jobs, and those who care about maintaining separation of powers in our nation."
"Today’s ruling reaffirms Congress never intended the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for the states,” said North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer.
Engineering Solutions – Firm By Firm
As part of the private sector, AEC firms have the power to drive decarbonization through its designs, practices, and initiatives.
Leading the way is ASHRAE, which recently issued a position document on building decarbonization and its role on mitigating the negative carbon impact of buildings on the environment.
“Building decarbonization encompasses a building’s entire life cycle, including building design, construction, operation, occupancy, and end of life,” said Farooq Mehboob, Fellow ASHRAE, 2022-2023 ASHRAE president. “ASHRAE is leading the charge in accelerating the mitigation of carbon resulting from energy use in the built environment by providing this roadmap to further our Society’s mission of a healthy and sustainable built environment for all.”
ASHRAE’s position is that decarbonization of buildings and its systems must be based on a holistic analysis including healthy, safe, and comfortable environments; energy efficiency; environmental impacts; sustainability; operational security; and economics.
By 2030, the global built environment must at least halve its 2015 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whereby:
- All new buildings are net-zero GHG emissions in operation;
- Widespread energy efficiency retrofit of existing assets are well underway; and
- Embodied carbon of new construction is reduced by at least 40%.
Numerous individual firms are proactively pursuing solutions on their own as well.
IMEG Corp., a Rock Island, Illinois-based firm that focuses on providing high-performing building systems, infrastructure, program management, and construction-related services, has integrated environmentally friendly policies and practices that promote energy, water, and carbon emissions conservation as well as waste reduction into its everyday activities.
“By joining industry- and government-led alliances, we’re making steps toward a carbon-free future,” said Adam McMillen P.E., LEED AP BD+C, director of sustainability, IMEG Corp., in a blog post. “In the last few years, IMEG joined five such initiatives: the MEP 2040 Challenge, U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Alliance, the AIA 2030 Commitment, the National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Decarbonizing the U.S. Health Sector, and the Structural Engineers 2050 Commitment.
“I’m also encouraged by the 61 U.S. hospital and health sector companies that joined the Biden Administration’s Health Sector Climate Pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and AIA’s commitment to support their members as they guide elected officials in addressing climate change,” he continued.
SmithGroup, an integrated design firm, has signed two new climate action commitments, the MEP 2040 Challenge and the SE 2050 Commitment. These two actions build upon the firm’s previous commitment to the AIA 2030 Commitment (signed in 2010) and support of the ASLA Landscape Declaration (2016).
SmithGroup is dedicated to designing a carbon-free future that embraces conservation, maximizes renewable energy, decarbonizes systems, adapts existing buildings and sites, incorporates low-carbon construction materials, and goes beyond offsets as much as possible.
“Leveraging the strength of our multidisciplinary structure, we are striving to advance climate mitigation and adaptation in all our work,” said Greg Mella, SmithGroup’s director of sustainability. “Signing each of these commitments builds upon our previous leadership in sustainable design and demonstrates our belief that accountable progress is necessary to mitigate the worst of the climate crisis.”
The Supreme Court’s decision is divisive. Some believe it places the opinions of nine individuals above experts who’ve devoted their entire lives to the specific area of interest. Others believe our elected representatives — and not bureaucrats without legal authority — should be in charge of such decisions. What do you think?
Regardless of where you stand, what is your firm doing in the name of decarbonization? Let me know, as I’d love to highlight your efforts in a future issue.