Use Construction Bonds to Fight Global Warming

Date: 26 Mar 2000 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Use Construction Bonds to Fight Global Warming
By David Morris
March 26, 2000

What can Minnesotans do to curtail global warming? The problem seems immense, but the solution is straightforward: Use energy more efficiently and shift to renewable fuels.

An effective and easy first step toward redressing our share of global pollution would be to adopt a do-no-environmental-harm policy when our communities issue construction bonds. Buildings account for more than one-third of air-pollutant emissions in the United States. We should insist that our next generation of structures will not burden the next generation of Minnesotans.

Local taxpayers finance the construction of tens of thousands of buildings every year. Last year about $800 million in school bonds were ratified by voters in dozens of communities across Minnesota. Between $1.5 billion and $3 billion was borrowed by Minnesota governments to finance noneducational structures. Nationwide, local governments borrowed more than $160 billion in new money in over 10,000 deals.

Bonding debates are often lively and even contentious affairs. Witness the donnybrook going on at our Legislature right now. The deliberations focus entirely on the need for the proposed structure and the activity to be housed inside. There is no debate on the impact of the structure’s operation on the larger community.

In the age of global warming, this oversight is unacceptable. Given that buildings and equipment are the single largest generators of greenhouse gases, we should take responsibility for the design and operating efficiency of those structures.

A bond is a 20-year loan used to finance a structure that will last for 50 to 100 years. As such it is a compact not only with this generation, but with the next one and the one after that.

The case for action is compelling. Four out of five of the warmest years on record took place in the last decade. Last year was the warmest to date, and the year 2000 looks as if it will set still another record. The scientific debate may continue, but the issue has moved out of the laboratory and into the public policy arena. The discussion has shifted from whether human activities affect the climate to what the human species is going to do about curbing our polluting behaviors.

In December 1997 more than 100 countries that were parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of 6 percent below 1990 emission levels no later than 2012. This is a substantial commitment: Greenhouse gas emissions have actually risen by about 20 percent since 1990. Both President George Bush and President Clinton have supported these goals, popularly known as the Kyoto Protocols.

Business, long a vocal critic of the global warming thesis, is taking another look. Increasing numbers are formally pledging to achieve or exceed the Kyoto performance standards. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, hundreds of CEOs of some of the world’s largest corporations participated in an electronic poll and arrived at what those in attendance called a “surprise verdict.”Climate change was seen as the world’s most pressing problem.

We can expect little from Washington on this issue. Congress is almost pathologically opposed to ratifying or adhering to the Kyoto Protocols. But we don’t have to wait for Congress and the international community to act.

Global warming may seem to be an overwhelming global problem, but it was caused by many local actions. By taking responsibility in our own communities, we can begin to reverse the trend.

Why not make the same commitment at the community level that increasing numbers of nations and corporations are making at a much higher level? The first step is to adopt a philosophy that states: When public money is used, the Kyoto goals will be honored. With regard to municipal bonds, this means that structures built and equipment purchased will not exacerbate global warming.

Here’s how it would work. The designer of a new building would estimate emissions. This is easily done, since designers and builders already estimate energy consumption. Meeting the performance standard would encourage them to minimize emissions by maximizing efficiency and the use of renewable energy. They would also have the option of investing in efficiency improvements elsewhere in the issuing jurisdiction. If builders could reduce pollution more cheaply by improving the operating efficiency of an old schoolhouse or fire station or office building, for example, they could do so and be given credit for doing so as if they had achieved that pollution reduction inside their new structure.

Such a performance standard would be easy to monitor. Moreover, it would allow designers and builders great latitude in how they would meet the standard.

Even for those who doubt the global warming thesis, an emission performance standard makes sense. Efficiency is a wise investment. Today, however, the focus almost entirely is on minimizing the construction cost of structures, not their operating cost. This results in an enormous waste of money, by one estimate tens of billions of dollars a year nationally by commercial and industrial buildings alone.

Scores of case studies show that new or substantially renovated structures can reduce their energy consumption by 25 percent, 50 percent, even 75 percent below those required by state building codes while repaying the increased first cost within 10 years.

If Minnesota city councils, county commissions and the state Legislature were to adopt the do-no-environmental-harm bonding policy, the thousand or so structures publicly financed each year in Minnesota would become models for the nation, perhaps for the world. Minnesotans can begin to redress our share of global pollution and, by doing so, foster a home-grown expertise that could become one of our major exports. And in the process we can save hundreds of millions of dollars.

This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.