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Changing the Focus: From Saving Energy to Saving the Planet

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

President Joe Biden at The Leaders Summit on Climate 2021 (Photo credit: Evan Vucci, AP)

Energy efficiency and residential energy retrofits don’t get the respect they deserve. For years a die-hard group of people has been championing and supporting the industry’s growth, touting the comfort and health benefits, along with the reduced cost of operation. Many rebate programs have come and gone, and yet the industry has never flourished or achieved the results many of us know are attainable.

There have been a number of efforts to repackage the message by, for example, connecting home performance to health benefits and indoor air quality, and yet the industry has still struggled to find its place in the mainstream consciousness.

Changing the Focus from Saving Energy to Saving the World from Climate Change

In the past, the home performance industry has focused primarily on the value of saving energy, with an emphasis on the total amount of energy saved. While no question saving energy is important, it’s possible that we could do a better job of bringing the message of energy efficiency to the masses by talking about the bigger picture of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

California has already shifted its strategy on this issue. In 2006, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which aimed to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which seemed like a long way away at the time. Other regulations followed, each progressively raising the bar to minimize the impact of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

As these regulations rolled out, the energy efficiency conversation in California slowly shifted from the importance of total energy saved to the need for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This trend may be the key to finally getting the spotlight and the respect the industry rightly deserves. As long as we’re still producing energy from fossil fuels, efficiency will be a powerful tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even where a large amount of energy is produced by renewables, energy efficiency still plays a vital role. Improving how your home manages energy use allows you to take advantage of those wind- and sun-powered electrons by reducing peak loads.

Will a National Focus on Climate Change Finally Make People Pay Attention to Efficiency?

There is no better messenger than the President of the United States when it comes to public awareness. Many in the industry were very excited when President Obama mentioned residential energy efficiency as a goal of his administration. The administration proposed a new nationwide effort to retrofit existing buildings called Home Star, a play on the widely recognized Energy Star brand. There were even some funny nicknames for the effort. The most memorable was “Cash for Calkers,” a play on the Cash for Clunkers auto rebate program.

Unfortunately, the effort never gained momentum. Once again, a group of die-hard believers was left to carry the torch and bring energy efficiency to the masses.

Flash forward ten years to 2021. Climate change is a centerpiece of the Biden agenda, and no one questions the importance of efficiency in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While the administration has yet to propose any efficiency programs with catchy names, it is already showing its commitment to the idea of saving energy, mainly by reviewing and reinstating several standards that the Trump Administration had gutted. The emphasis on climate change will no doubt have significant implications for the efficiency business.

Are Things Different This Time?

History has shown that even though we all occupy the same world, we often forget that our actions affect others, whether we intend to or not. In 1986, the radioactive fall-out from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster blanketed vast swaths of Europe. Today, air pollution from China is showing up in test samples thousands of miles away.

When it comes to climate, we have been living in denial. Our privileged American lifestyle has contributed to global warming for decades. Today, our impact is second only to China, which has an affinity for coal-fired power plants.

Big oil has known for a half-century that the combustion of fossil fuels has adverse effects on climate. In the 1960s, the industry paid a group of prestigious scientists to study the impacts of burning fossil fuels. The report irrefutably linked the combustion of fossil fuels to detrimental effects on the atmosphere. Rather than take action to change their practices or develop new solutions, the industry sequestered this information. Corporate profits and shareholder returns took precedence over the climate and humanity.

Over the years, many political leaders have expressed their concerns about climate change. One – former Vice President Al Gore —  even went so far as to produce a documentary film exposing the “inconvenient truth” of what using our atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon was doing to the world. An Inconvenient Truthrattled many cages, but the public and the energy industry still didn’t respond as many of us had hoped they would.

The Obama administration took some steps to address the problem. While these were not enough, they at least represented a start. The administration received immense pushback for these efforts, and the next administration reversed course, eradicating the terms “Climate Change” and “Global Warming” from all government publications and agencies. Big oil had a willing partner in the White House, and denial was the norm.

Now, it seems that the scales have tipped. The Biden administration is addressing global warming as the existential threat it is. Many Americans now understand that climate change is a threat to our national security. Others recognize the opportunity that clean energy and the supporting technologies represent.

Some are still trying to bury their heads in the sand and hope it all goes away, but there seem to be fewer of these voices now. It seems that we, as a global leader, are finally taking an active stance to reduce the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

This month, the Biden administration hosted a virtual climate summit that included nations from around the world. Two days before this historic event, President Biden had a one-on-one conversation with President Xi Jinping of China. After the discussion, both leaders agreed to work collaboratively to reduce their GHG emissions. The significance of this agreement cannot be understated. The world’s two largest GHG emitters, agreeing to work together to reduce GHG emissions? The thought of such an agreement was unfathomable just a few short months ago. Does anybody remember Trump’s stance on China and the administration’s ineffective trade wars?

The White House released a formal statement after the call stating both countries “are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”

The agreement between China and the US is historic on its own. It was then followed up by lengthy conversations with 40 world leaders at The Leaders Summit on Climate 2021. At the summit, the US formally pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2030. The message was clear. The US is back in the game and taking the lead on climate change, setting aggressive goals to maximize our efforts.

There was a secondary message from the US as well. There is no way we or any other country can do this alone. Biden also announced that the US would re-join the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty on climate change. Hearing statements of this magnitude from a world leader speaks volumes.

Other countries joined in, setting their GHG reduction targets. Russia even stepped up to the plate and agreed to work collaboratively with the United States and others to limit emissions. Biden called the summit “an encouraging start” and promised to make climate change the center of his foreign diplomacy efforts. Other leaders joined in and announced their country’s emission reduction targets.

Overall, the fact that world leaders, including adversaries, met to discuss and agree on climate objectives is a huge milestone and will hopefully set the stage for lasting change.

What Does It All Mean for Efficiency?

You might ask yourself, what does this mean for the energy efficiency industry? If you have followed state policy in California, you know that GHG reductions have replaced the goal of total energy savings. New legislative efforts and incentive programs are supporting this transition. If you are a contractor, you might want to tweak your messaging and explore embracing some of the technologies associated with GHG reductions and electrification, such as heat pump technology, in addition to traditional efficiency measures. If you are a homeowner, you might consider greenhouse gas impacts when choosing to replace replacing your mechanical systems. Now is a better time than ever to look at converting to an all-electric home, potentially combined with renewable energy.

The Leader Summit on Climate is an affirmation that reducing GHG emissions is not a regional trend or a political trend. Instead, GHG reductions are now a global concern that will require a multi-national effort. The shift in focus from total energy saved to GHG reductions is happening as we speak. Regional gas bans and electrification efforts are some of the first indications that this is not a flash-in-the-pan idea. It is the way of the future.

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