Builders Urged to Get Involved in Climate-Change Debate
As the Obama Administration and Congress move to formulate a policy on climate change and energy-efficiency requirements in the weeks and months ahead, builders must be pro-active in defining the debate and shaping solutions, according to panelists who participated in a special forum at the NAHB Board of Directors meeting in Chicago on Oct. 3.
“The political climate has changed. Those now in charge of federal policy are anxious to get started,” said Gerritt Knaap, a professor at the University of Maryland and executive director of its National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.
Knaap cited a dramatic increase in activism on the housing and transportation front, where the federal government is interested in promoting greater density with mixed-use and transit-oriented development to improve the environment and public health and reduce automobile traffic and emissions.
“While the issue of what greater density will actually accomplish requires more research, an increase in the federal role in encouraging better land use planning is not inherently bad,” said Knaap. “The issue is how the federal government is involved.”
Federal efforts are now focused on boosting density and transit-oriented development, according to Jess Hall, panel moderator and chairman of the NAHB Environmental Issues Committee. “The goal is to get people out of cars. NAHB is concerned that many concepts beginning to take shape are not based on market realities. This could have a real impact on where and how our members do business.”
Echoing those concerns, Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, cited Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who earlier this year defined the concept of livable communities as “developing modes of transportation where people do not have to get into their car every time they want to go to the drugstore or the grocery store, or to their doctor's appointment.”
“The belief is, if you get out of your car, you have somehow lowered your carbon footprint,” said Utt.
David Banks, legal counsel of Washington, D.C.-based Gray & Schmitz, told builders that Carol Browner, President Obama’s top domestic climate adviser, has conceded that Congress is unlikely to complete a final climate bill before negotiations on a global climate-change treaty begins in December in Copenhagen.
Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, developing nations such as China and India are not legally required to set specific targets to curb carbon dioxide emissions.
The Obama team is working hard to obtain commitments from developing countries, said Banks, but the best it can hope to get from China is that “instead of building one coal-fired plant per week, it will cut back to 30-something per year.”
If the U.S. cannot convince China and India to sign on to binding agreements, Banks said, the U.S. Senate is unlikely to ratify any treaty emerging from Copenhagen.
As Congress looks to impose stricter energy-efficiency requirements on new buildings and residential construction, panelists urged builders to remind lawmakers that only targeting new homes and failing to pursue an integrated strategy that addresses existing homes, equipment efficiency and consumer behavior will result in legislation that falls far short of its mark in increasing energy efficiency in housing.
“How do we point out to lawmakers that squeezing more efficiency out of new homes won’t help as much as changing the behavior of consumers in older, inefficient homes?” asked Banks. “It’s a tough political sell.”
Utt noted that Congress is determined to move forward on legislation to make new homes more energy-efficient, but he said it must be done in a thoughtful manner. “You need to talk about the cost of this and its impact on affordability and homeownership,” he said. “You also need to come forward with alternatives and get policymakers focused on cost-effective ways to achieve these environmental goals.”
“The key is getting the prices and incentives right,” added Knaap.
For more information, e-mail Calli Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.