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Biden’s infrastructure plan should focus more on resilient, low-emissions buildings

The government must support communities with buildings that reduce emissions and are better equipped to handle disasters.
By Mahesh Ramanujam

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Mahesh Ramanujam is president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, creator of the LEED green building system. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

The first year of the 2020s will most often be remembered for the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic that ravaged the world. But what should not be lost to history is that the impact of Covid-19 was compounded by a new U.S. record for natural disasters incurring at least $1 billion in damages apiece, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In fact, the U.S. had 22 of them in 2020, costing a total of $96.4 billion, which shattered the previous annual record of 16 billion-dollar events set in 2011 and 2017.

Sadly, this isn’t surprising given recent climate trends. And with record drought and extreme heat waves gripping the country, we’re off to an inauspicious start for a decade destined to be defined by our actions (or lack thereof) around climate change.

That’s why the infrastructure conversation happening in Washington is so important after years of gridlock on climate policy. We all pay for weather disasters one way or another — through taxes, insurance premiums or direct losses. And while building and modernizing infrastructure isn’t cheap, the cost of inaction is far higher, with the physical, financial and emotional losses only becoming more severe and catastrophic.

Congress and the Biden administration must urgently begin building more sustainable and resilient communities that are better equipped to handle disasters and also sharply reduce emissions to slow climate change and ultimately lessen the magnitude and frequency of these disasters.

The recently announced bipartisan framework for rebuilding infrastructure is a good start that includes badly needed investments in roads, mass transit, broadband and the electric grid, among other sectors. But it leaves out other core infrastructure — such as buildings and homes — where much of the damage from disasters happens and from which nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions originate.

The final infrastructure packages that President Biden signs need to have much more of a focus on this area. Ensuring equitable access to better buildings is critical, from modernizing our schools to retrofitting public buildings to investing in healthier, more energy-efficient public housing.

The toll from hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and other disasters is growing in part because more people live and work in areas touched by disasters. But as we’ve seen with the increasing wildfires in California, the Texas deep freeze in February 2021, and the massive heat wave across the Pacific Northwest this summer, cataclysmic events can hit anywhere — and they are stronger, more consistent in their devastation, and more threatening to our long-term health and well-being.

The bills to watch

There are many things we can do to mitigate damages while making meaningful progress to reduce emissions — and in many cases, there is legislation already pending in Congress to do just that.

The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act would authorize $100 billion in federal grants to help local communities tackle the severe backlog of needs in school facilities, while ensuring that new construction and major renovations create green schools that are built to be more resilient and efficient, with lower energy costs and better indoor air quality.

Bills such as the Open Back Better Act and the Federal Building Clean Jobs Act would provide seed funding to create public-private partnerships for modernizing local, state and federal facilities across the country. They would capitalize on the billions of dollars of untapped energy cost savings from efficiency improvements to help cover the cost, with the projects designed to simultaneously make buildings safer and more resilient. This could be done, for example, by putting new, high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment on the roof of a fire station at risk of flooding, or installing storm-resistant, high-efficiency windows and roofing in a school or public health center threatened by hurricanes or tornadoes.

We also need to do much more with tax incentives to encourage homeowners, affordable housing developers and private building owners to invest in efficiency improvements, such as in the Clean Energy for America Act. After all, new homes and buildings are likely to last longer — sometimes much longer — than the average life expectancy of a person in this country.

These proposals would create hundreds of thousands of good-paying U.S. jobs that can’t be outsourced. Every school or courthouse we retrofit will require construction workers, engineers and electricians. And if we do it right, we will drive those investments and jobs into communities of color, distressed rural communities and other areas that have for too long been left behind.

Perhaps more than any other administration, the Biden administration has been vocal in calling for building and housing retrofits to create jobs and address climate change. As the infrastructure debate reaches a crossroads, we urge Congress and the administration to follow through and ensure that they are a core component of any deal.

(Article image courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council)

Mahesh Ramanujam is president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, creator of the LEED green building system.