Basic changes in building design and construction could slash greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent in North America, said a joint Canada-US-Mexico report Thursday.
The report, "Green Building in North America: Opportunities and Challenges," was released by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation at an environmental trade fair in this western Canadian city.
Politicians and businesses on the continent have focused on the role of transportation and the oil and gas sector in climate change and ignored buildings, said Jonathan Westeinde.
But the building industry has "a much greater potential to have an impact on climate change," he said.
Westeinde is a Canadian developer who chairs an advisory group for the commission, which has the mandate of environmental cooperation under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The report recommended that engineers and architects abandon old, proven designs in favor of emerging building technologies, and also called for urban planning with increased population density and access to public transit.
It touted basic measures such as thicker insulation and more energy efficient windows, minimizing energy-intensive heating and air-conditioning and avoiding use of some synthetic building materials that cause indoor air pollution by releasing volatile compounds.
The report noted that North America's buildings release more than 2,200 megatons of carbon dioxide each year, some 35 percent of the continent's total. "The carbon savings, if we started building all buildings to a higher standard by 2030, would be equivalent to all carbon emissions of the transportation sector in the United States," said Westeinde.
But the industry has a long way to go. Less than four percent of new buildings meet stringent new environmental, health and energy-saving goals under the continent's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard.
Many of the ideas in the report, from urban design to boosting insulation, are not new. "What's different with this report is there is science behind it," said Westeinde.
Evidence for the possible energy savings is contained in technical background papers based on laboratory tests, and show that the targets in the report are achievable, he said.
The report shows that the goal of making all American buildings completely carbon-neutral by 2030, set by the American Institute of Architecture, can be achieved, he said.
Yet, North America lags Europe in sustainable construction.
"The North American building industry has the lowest research and development budget, as a percentage of revenues, of any industry in North America ... (and) of its peers anywhere in the world," explained Westeinde.
"It shows how much of a laggard we are."
"If I wanted to be critical, I'd say North America has no vision about what it's trying to achieve from a climate change point of view."
In North America another barrier to sustainable buildings is the way new residential and commercial construction is financed, said Westeinde.
Environmentally friendly buildings are not more costly in the long run, because they save money on energy and maintenance many years after construction.
But loans for construction are based on the short-term costs of developers, rather than the long-term savings for buyers.
The result is the "lowest possible capital cost construction ... even though the life cycle of a building is 50 to 75 years," lamented Westeinde. "It's a stupid way."