The 21st session of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, held in Paris in 2015. (© Drop of Light/

The 21st session of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, held in Paris in 2015. (© Drop of Light/

What can an individual company actually do to make a positive impact on climate change? Where does it look to significantly cut its carbon emissions?

The questions are particularly relevant after formal approval this past fall of the Paris Agreement, through which 193 nations have committed to limiting the rise in average global temperatures. The agreement came out of COP21—the 21st Conference of the Parties, referring to countries that signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—held in Paris in 2015. It sets a goal of keeping the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

For many companies, their best opportunities to affect climate change will be found in their real estate.

Buildings have an enormous carbon footprint. Energy demand from buildings is responsible for at least 30 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to a 2013 International Energy Agency (IEA) publication. The IEA also estimates that it will take a 77 percent reduction in total building-sector emissions by 2050 for the objective of the Paris Agreement to be achieved.

Clearly, the opportunity exists for companies to leverage their real estate to meet climate change goals. And that is true whether a company owns or leases space, or planned to cut its carbon emissions or not. Shrinking a carbon footprint can be done incrementally, often within the existing capital expenditures budget, and by urging cost-free operational and behavioral changes from staff and others who occupy the building or space.

Solar panels deployed as awnings on an office building. (© Rudmer Zwerver)

Solar panels deployed as awnings on an office building. (© Rudmer Zwerver)

If all this sounds a bit New Agey, there is more than karmic payback at stake. Companies can do very well by doing good. Cutting carbon emissions is about cutting electricity use, and with that comes front-end cost savings and risk management of future energy costs. But on top of that, green buildings are also attractive assets. Compared with their conventional-building peers, green buildings have as much as 17 percent greater average value globally. Some top markets have seen a 33 percent premium for high-performance green buildings, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

It is important to note that climate change strategies have a precedent. They are related to resilience strategies, which chief executives and facilities managers have been talking about for the past two years or more. Climate change strategies simply look at resilience—the hardening of buildings and campuses to make them fare better during natural and other disasters—with a new lens. Climate change strategies are focused on dialing down carbon emissions to help prevent those natural disasters linked to climate change and to help the world become a more stable, sustainable place.

Before specific strategies are examined, a few givens need to be understood:

  • People have to accept that many scientists have linked a global shift in climate to greenhouse gas emissions. Not everyone in your organization has to agree with it, but key parties must accept the fact that we have to address the impact of global climate shift in our facilities.
  • People have to accept that carbon is a significant component of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • People have to understand that electricity—and specifically the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity—releases carbon into the environment. Simply put, there is a troika consisting of electricity, carbon, and climate.

Because buildings consume 50 percent of global electricity, according to the IEA, this article focuses squarely on strategies for reducing electricity use—starting now. A nod is made to those parts of the country that do not rely on fossil fuels for electricity. A more formidable nod is made to water, because in some parts of the country water should be considered significant de facto electricity.

Getting Started

The goal of carbon reduction is not just to lower energy bills today. The intended impact is far broader and includes preparing for the uncertainty of electricity costs in the future and the possibility of carbon taxes; creating a high-performance building that is an attractive component of an investment portfolio; and making a contribution to the community and the world.

To think bigger about electricity/carbon/climate, companies would do well to follow the following guides.

Photovoltaic cells arrayed on the facade of a residential building. (© Hadrian)

Photovoltaic cells arrayed on the facade of a residential building. (© Hadrian)

Understand impact. For every watt of electricity used or saved in the United States, three watts are at stake. For the current U.S. energy mix of fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and hydropower, it takes three watts of electricity to get one watt of power. Power is lost in heat that goes up the smokestack and out the cooling tower and in transmission from the power plant. Consumers pay for the full three watts. So the leverage of being smart on the consumer end has a significant multiplier of at least three.

Also, increasingly across the United States a watt of electricity does not cost the same from one time of day to the next or from one time of year to another. Only very large companies with long-term power agreements can reliably anticipate their energy costs and the impact on their bottom line.

Respect code. Electricity—both power generation and distribution—is a fixed resource in the United States. The country can augment production with big wind turbines, but those turbines are on the same aging distribution grid as electricity from traditional sources. What’s more, any new power generation from wind turbines is ostensibly replacing that from old power plants being taken off line.

Use of efficient lighting, such as LED bulbs, is low-hanging fruit for electricity conservation. (@Hal_P)

Use of efficient lighting, such as LED bulbs, is low-hanging fruit for electricity conservation. (@Hal_P)

So being serious about energy codes, which are driven in part by the availability of electricity, and not looking for ways to shortcut them is a good way to start fighting climate change. Doing better than code is the goal, especially in light of the fact that not all building code is equal in the United States. Some markets have more ecologically progressive codes; others have codes that have not been updated in years.

Set goals and overachieve. Facility leaders need to do more than just make sure the everyday demands of heating and air conditioning are met. If they are on top of their game, employing smart management, smart commissioning, and even preventive maintenance, they drive the operational costs of a building down year after year in spite of the building getting older. Even if it is only a 1 percent reduction in electricity use, that is electricity that was not used and carbon that was not released.

Create opportunities. The start of any climate action plan is simply having the conversation within your organization. Saving electricity/saving energy is an obvious benefit. But being part of a global effort to stop climate change also could be a good story for an organization’s brand and serve as a recruiting tool. A number of companies—including developers, building managers, carmakers, and department stores—measure and publish their electricity savings from year to year. There is no reason other organizations could not do the same.

Cost-Free—or Nearly So—Fixes

Carbon emissions can be mitigated by making simple operational changes, as well as by urging behavioral change—which is trickier—by staff and others who occupy the building. Possible operational changes follow.

Ease the building’s temperature settings and establish set points. One of the biggest, simple things an owner can do is use the building controls already in place to reduce air-temperature control when the building is not full of people. Regional variables and considerations exist, of course, and the building needs to be thermally secure so it does not get too hot, too cold, or too moist. But the idea is to establish set points that determine how hot or cold the building will be allowed to get after business hours.

Change expectations/communicate. Many owners have convinced tenants that the building will have a fixed temperature no matter what the weather is outside. That expectation should be changed through good communication. Advise occupants, for instance, that the building may feel a bit chilly if people arrive at work at 6 a.m. during an extreme cold front. Explain that the goal is to save energy and that that is accomplished by slowly raising the temperature, not “cranking it up.” Communicate to tenants that the building’s temperature will recover quickly, nonetheless, and that everyone will have succeeded at making a positive impact on climate change.

Kill the vampire loads. Vampire loads—standby power for equipment not currently in use—add roughly 10 percent to the average American household’s monthly utility bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. For commercial buildings, that is a conservative estimate. Think of it as one watt out of ten wasted. And if it takes three watts to get one watt, the cascading effect reaches all the way back to the power plant.

Unplug flat-screen TVs after business hours or put them on power strips. Likewise, plug computers and task lights into power strips at workstations. Educate people about plug loads and their link to energy waste and carbon creation and encourage them—perhaps with contests or campaigns—to power down. Put “vendomiser” commercial timers on vending machines so that they turn off from roughly 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. As industry gets increasingly effective and efficient in the lighting and air conditioning of space, plug loads become more glaring power hogs because they represent a greater percentage of total energy use.

Capital Expenditures

Most of these measures will sound familiar. The new idea is to be clever about energy-saving upgrades and to push them a bit further. Through the lens of climate action, capital expenditures can provide multiple returns on investment, supporting a broader range of positives that put high optimization electricity/energy use on the same plane as employee productivity, carbon reduction, and a more stable planet. Recommendations for capital expenditures follow.

Address lighting first. Lighting—likely the second- or third-largest component of a building’s energy demand—remains low-hanging fruit. Light-emitting diodes are now a much better technology and worth reconsideration. But there is more to lighting than just the type of lamp used and its life cycle; it is about where you put the light. Should it be a task light or an overhead light? Think about what you are trying to achieve. The goal is not to massively light the place, but to find the best lighting source for a variety of spaces because lighting affects people’s behavior, mood, and productivity, as well as the energy bill. Be sure to invest in occupancy sensors.

Align energy use to when you need it and when you do not. In addition to lighting sensors, consider replacing power strips at workstations with ultraviolet sensors that respond to a warm body. If an employee leaves for the weekend and forgets to turn off everything on his or her desk, the UV sensor responds. Payback on the cost is usually less than six months.

Consider more sophisticated building controls. Consider a building management system that controls the building’s major systems, including major lighting, air conditioning and ventilation, heating, elevators, and others.

Tighten the envelope. The single most effective thing that can be done to increase energy efficiency is to improve insulation. This does not mean excessive insulation, but insulation that really works—for the roof, walls, and foundation, whether the building has a basement or a slab on grade—to keep the outside air out and the inside air in.

This will provide comfort as well as dehumidification—important for protecting property in the building because humidity degrades materials. Insulation offers the fastest payback there is. Also, reroofing should be considered: in a hot climate, just reroofing the building with a cool roof can achieve energy savings of 25 to 30 percent, with a reduction in carbon emissions to go with it.

Consider the glass in the facade. How old is that single-pane glass and the curtain wall, particularly on the building’s south and west sides? Products exist that can provide an effective retrofit for existing buildings with less-efficient windows. Among them is 3M Daylight Redirecting Film—a film that not only reduces heat gain and glare from windows, but also increases light bounce deeper into the space.

Upgrade the central plant. Farther up the food chain of capital expenditures is an improvement to the central plant—not just the cooling towers, but the chillers, too—that heats, cools, and dehumidifies. Consider the age of the central plant, as well as how efficient it is. Many financial incentives exist for upgrading that thing that runs 24/7, 365 days a year. And remember than continual system commissioning can extend the improvement provided by an upgrade.

Finding the Right Real Estate

All companies can be proactive about finding real estate that supports climate change goals. The following are considerations for those considering a real estate transaction.

Buyers and operators. Look for buildings with an Energy Star rating, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Operations and Maintenance certification, or other third-party validation that suggests some effort has been made to make the building environmentally conscious. Consider not just how the building was designed and built, but also how you will be able to operate it.

For large-scale buildings, it is becoming standard due diligence practice for buyers to request at least the past five years of energy data from the seller. The challenge comes with medium-sized buildings with management systems that only log what is paid in energy costs. Ask whether the building documents its energy—and water—use outside of its bills; bills alone provide data that are difficult to interpret because they can vary greatly depending on the demand pricing of the energy itself.

Finally, determine what it will take to get up to speed on operating the building. If a building has operators, find out who they are and whether they will stay with the building. These are the people who understand the sequence of operations and what needs to be improved, and who can provide a smooth transition from one owner or operator to the next.

Those leasing space. As with owners and operators, tenants should look for buildings with some kind of third-party validation—LEED Core and Shell, for instance, or even first-person experience from other tenants—that speaks to the operating efficiency of the building. Tenants then should simply note how the building feels: if it is humid or stuffy, there is an energy connection to that.

ULI has published a report summarizing the Paris Agreement, highlighting key implications for real estate. Copies of L'Accord de Paris: A Potential Game Changer for the Global Real Estate Industry, can be downloaded at

ULI has published a report summarizing the Paris Agreement, highlighting key implications for real estate. Copies of L’Accord de Paris: A Potential Game Changer for the Global Real Estate Industry, can be downloaded at

When tenants build out their own space, they should consider the lighting, how people will be placed in the space, and the appliances that will be used, all with an eye toward energy efficiency. The more complicated component is getting an occupancy sensor on your floor or floors, not just for lighting, but also for heating and cooling setbacks. Determine whether the building has a system to support that across the whole floor.

Obtaining sensors and meters is often the tenant’s responsibility. That is where a green lease, which ties a tenant’s actual electricity and water use to the terms of the lease, comes in handy. For a large lease, the cost savings from a green lease can be significant.

Moving as Partners

For too long, the debate about climate change has been dominated by talk about wind turbines and solar panels and emissions from cars and factories. No one emphasized the impact of buildings. It even took 20 years to get a Buildings Day at a United Nations climate change conference. It finally happened in Paris last year. Clearly, buildings are an important part of the conversation.

Moving forward, the design community in partnership with the building owners and operators need to address both how buildings are designed and how they are operated in order to support energy efficiency for myriad goals, including a more sustainable planet. Through the lens of climate action, even a small change to save electricity and reduce carbon emissions is consequential. It is a contribution to a global effort that is cumulative and powerful.

Rives Taylor is a principal at Gensler, a global design firm. He is a recognized global expert in resilient, high-performance, and sustainable design and has been a faculty member of Rice University and the University of Houston for 25 years.