To meet the goals of the resolution, the design and construction industries will retrofit millions of structures and build many more. In the process, they could create a more just and resilient country.
Whether or not the U.S. decides to take action on climate change, the shape of the countryâits towns, offices, homes, schools, roads, farms, and moreâis on the brink of a radical transformation. This transformation could be borne out in two ways. The first is external: Escalating storms, floods, droughts, mass migration, food scarcity, and economic instability could dramatically alter the physical landscape and economy. The other is internal: A national effort to retrofit millions of buildings and rethink the way communities are designed could help Americans withstand the ravages of climate change and make the country more equitable.
The resolution known as the Green New Deal, published by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in February, wants to bring about the latter. The Green New Deal framework describes the monumental changes needed to decarbonize the American economy by meeting 100% of our energy demands with zero-emission sources in the next decade. It will require overhauling major industries like energy and agriculture, but also transforming Americaâs buildings and construction sector.
Itâs easy to miss just how destructive and inefficient land development is, given its ubiquity. Existing buildings hoover up about 40% of energy consumed in the U.S. and emit about 29% of greenhouse gases. The Green New Deal calls for retrofitting all of themâevery last skyscraper, McDonaldâs, and suburban ranch homeâfor energy efficiency within the next 10 years. It also addresses the role of the construction industry, which accounts for about 11% of all emissions globally, by recommending investment in community-led building projects oriented around decarbonization issues like resiliency, transit, and land preservation. And crucially, it demands family-sustaining wages, the right to organize, and a âjust transitionâ for everyone affected by the transition to this decarbonized world.
House Republicans quickly declared the resolution a âboondoggleâ in an official statement. It was an ironic choice of words. Whether the GOP realized it or not, that term emerged in the 1930s, when critics of the New Deal used it to characterize the project of putting broke Americans to work on hundreds of thousands of projects. Itâs true that the Green New Dealâs goalsâto reshape the countryâs homes, workplaces, and economy, and provide equity for allâsound radical in a country ravaged by the housing crisis, worker exploitation, and stagnating wages, but from a technical, structural, and architectural standpoint, theyâre entirely feasible. Despite what politicians would have you believe, weâve done it before, and we have the tools to do it again.
As Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who is leading the creation of policy around the resolution, says, reaching them will mean thinking about transit, land use, housing, building regulations, and more. In short: âWhat will our cities and towns look like, moving forward?â
DESIGNING A FEDERAL BUILDING PROJECT
According to the Energy Information Administration, there are roughly 5.6 million commercial buildings in the United States. Most of those are small; half are under 5,000 square feetâthink of a fast food joint or a doctorâs office. There are also 138 million housing units, which includes both houses and apartment units. Reducing their carbon footprint will involve the crucial, economy-wide shift away from fossil fuels, but also tamping down the amount of energy buildings use in the first place.
Retrofitting tens of millions of houses and apartment buildings, which take lots of energy to heat, cool, and light, isnât the Green New Dealâs most glamorous clause, but itâs one of its most pressing. As summers get hotter and the population (and thus the housing stock) grows, the urgency will only increase, as the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reports. There will be trillions of lightbulbs to replace. Millions of HVAC units to upgrade, operable windows and automatic shades to install, rooftops to paint with heat-reflecting paint, shade-giving trees to plant and photovoltaics to hook up. Miles and miles of wiring and sensors and automation platforms to get online so it can all be monitored and controlled.
Who will do this work? Who will pay for it? How will it be regulated, in a country where building regulations are determined at local, rather than federal, l