Buildings can help us fight climate change
Heat deaths have hit a 10-year high in Las Vegas, capping an alarming trend in our increasingly hot climate. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to federal climate change efforts, limiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can make enormous progress in Nevada by using state and local laws rather than federal laws.
Clark County — and Nevada’s other urban areas — can take a big step forward by adopting a new and extremely promising kind of local law, called building performance standards. Clark County and other urban areas should start developing these laws now and adopt them as soon as possible. We should urge our local representatives (county commissioners, city council) to do so.
Building performance standards can help us save water, energy and money; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; avoid the worst consequences of climate change; and help businesses thrive. Reno adopted an early version of building performance standards in 2019. Denver and St. Louis just adopted improved versions, joining eight other cities and states.
Building performance standards usually apply to large buildings, not single family homes. In a first step, owners of large buildings gather data about the buildings’ energy and water use, using last year’s bills. They share the data with their municipality.
Next, the municipality uses the data to set performance standards for energy and water use. Different building types (e.g., office, hotel, apartment building, supermarket, retail) receive different performance standards. The municipality sets final performance standards for each building type, to be met in 15 to 30 years. The municipality also sets interim performance standards for each building to meet every 5 years, on the way to the final standard.
Building owners can meet the performance standards any way they choose, giving flexibility in when and how to meet the standards. A building energy and water audit, by a qualified auditor, is a big help, identifying cost-effective energy and water saving measures. For owners lacking financial resources, the municipality can develop a system of low-cost loans, which can be paid with monthly savings on energy and water. For example, if a new heating and cooling system cuts the energy bill, those savings pay the loan.
Building performance standards benefit both business and the environment:
- Save money. Building owners, operators and tenants save on energy and water bills. With relatively inexpensive energy efficiency improvements, like basic air sealing and HVAC system tune-ups, typical commercial buildings can save about 30 percent on heating alone.
- Increase building value. Energy-efficient properties have occupancy levels up to 10 percent higher than less-efficient properties, rental premiums over 10 percent higher than less-efficient properties, and sale prices up to 25 percent higher than less-efficient properties.
- Save water. Building performance standards can reduce water use and help preserve the Colorado River, Lake Mead and groundwater.
- Create good paying jobs. Qualified energy and water auditors will be in demand. Local contractors will have new work improving building systems and controls.
- Make a better future for our children and grandchildren. Reducing energy use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions helps us preserve our rivers, lakes, and reservoirs; rangelands, farmlands, and forests; our water and food; our beloved rural and city communities. It helps us make a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Building performance standards are just one of many tools available. Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization, a nationwide pro bono group, lists more than 2,000 laws — many intended for state and local governments — that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nevada’s State Climate Strategy and greenhouse gas inventory detail over 25 state law and policy changes that we can adopt, right here at home.
In Nevada, we see and feel the climate crisis daily. Las Vegas and Reno were the fastest warming cities in the nation in 2019. Lake Mead is down to 30 percent of its capacity as we face the worst drought in the Colorado River Basin’s recorded history.
Don’t despair. Let’s get to work with state and local laws. Clark County and Nevada’s other urban areas should start developing building performance standards now and adopt them as soon as possible. We should urge our local representatives (county commissioners, city council) to do so.
Frank Fritz is a Senior Fellow and adjunct professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV. He founded the Climate and Sustainability Law Project at Boyd; was part of the team that produced Nevada’s first State Climate Strategy in 2020; contributes model laws to Legal Pathways for Deep Decarbonization; helped create the award-winning documentary, Windsor Park: The Sinking Streets, and teaches students how to use the law to combat and adapt to climate change.
The views expressed are those of the author, not UNLV or the William S. Boyd School of Law.