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Why Aren't Efficient Buildings A No-brainer?

In The New York Times, Clifford Krauss reports on one of the cheapest, easiest ways to cut greenhouse-gas emissions—ratchet up America's outdated and often incredibly lax building codes:

Since the energy crises of the 1970s, the United States has known it has an energy problem. Yet today, the energy requirements in building codes remain weak across half the country, and at least seven states have virtually no rules. That means that in many places, particularly the nation’s heartland, almost every new home, store and factory that goes up locks the country into unnecessary energy use for years to come.

The problem is not just construction defects like the one Mr. Umphress caught, though those are plentiful. In many places, builders are still using too little insulation. Citing cost, they have not adopted the most energy-saving water heaters, roofing materials or window panes.

The Energy Department reports that buildings and the appliances inside them account for almost 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in the country.

According to Hal Harvey of ClimateWorks, if every new house and building across the country adhered to the strict standards found in, say, Austin, Texas, then the United States could cut its carbon-dioxide emissions by 11 percent by 2030, compared with the business as usual case. (California claims to have cut energy consumption in new homes and buildings by 75 percent in the past three decades through the use of codes.) And that's before retrofitting and patching up older buildings already in existence.

To recap: No glittery technology necessary, and residents would actually save a fair chunk of money through lower energy costs. So what's stopping this from happening? In general, builders oppose tighter standards, since they can add $2,000 or more to the cost of the house. The incentives here are misaligned: The people constructing the buildings aren't the ones who will benefit from the lower electric bills. And renters, tenants, and buyers usually have no idea how energy-efficient a building actually is—in most parts of the country, it's virtually impossible for a renter to figure, "Okay, well this apartment is X more per month in rent, but I'll save an additional Y on my electricity bill, so it's worth it..." That information either isn't there, or it's very hard to come by. So overall demand for efficient buildings is a lot lower than it ought to be, rationally, and there's a good case for regulation to step into the void.

--Bradford Plumer