Study: Green building not growing fast enough to curb climate change

November 24, 2008 |

The fast growth of green buildings is having a demonstrable effect on saving energy, water, land, and materials, and in making more productive workplaces, but progress is insufficient to adequately curb global climate change, according to a new report.

 The Green Building Impact Report, written by green building pioneer Rob Watson, executive editor of, is the first-ever integrated assessment of the land, water, energy, material and indoor environmental impacts of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Green building expert Elizabeth Balkan also served as an author of the report.

 The report answers for the first time whether green buildings live up to their name — that is, that they are engendering demonstrable environmental improvement.

 Among the findings:


* Land Use. Nearly 400 million vehicle miles traveled have been avoided by the occupants of LEED buildings, thanks to efficient locations and the myriad of alternative transportation options supported by LEED. This will grow to more than 4 billion vehicle miles by 2020.

* Water. Expected water savings from LEED commercial buildings will grow to more than 7% of all non-residential water use by 2020. The equivalent of 2008 LEED water savings would fill enough 32-ounce bottles to circle the Earth 300 times.

* Energy. LEED buildings consume approximately 25% less on average than comparable commercial buildings. By 2020, these energy savings will amount to more than 1.3 million tons of coal equivalent each year, representing approximately 78 million tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions.

* Materials and Resources. LEED has helped spur an entire industry in green building materials. Certified projects to date have specified a total of more than $10 billion of green materials, which could grow to a cumulative amount exceeding $100 billion by 2020.

* Indoor Environmental Quality. Companies with employees working in LEED buildings realized annual productivity gains exceeding $170 million resulting from improved indoor environmental quality, a number that will grow to nearly $2 billion of annual productivity improvements by 2020.

“Our findings are both encouraging and cautionary,” said Watson, who is often referred to as the “Founding Father of LEED” and served as its national Steering Committee Chairman between 1994 and 2005. “Overall, we believe that LEED buildings are making a major impact in reducing the overall environmental footprint of individual structures. However, significant additional progress is possible and indeed necessary on both the individual building level and in terms of market penetration if LEED is to contribute in a meaningful way to reducing the environmental footprint of buildings in the U.S. and worldwide.”

According to the report, the carbon “footprint” of U.S. commercial buildings will need to decline steadily each year by roughly 1.6% — a total of 14% improvement between 2000 and 2008 — to reach a goal of 80% reduction by 2050. The good news is that LEED buildings are ahead of this goal in terms of their own performance. The bad news is that the entire building sectormust be hitting these reduction targets.

“LEED buildings’ relatively exemplary performance is not helping to make enough of a dent in constraining the growth of the building sector’s CO2 emissions. We need much more — and much more quickly — to reduce total emissions,” concludes Watson.

“Green buildings’ progress parallels that of business in general in terms of gradually improving their environmental performance,” says Greener World Media chairman and executive editor Joel Makower. “The question is whether progress is happening at sufficient speed and scale to adequately address our needs for cleaner air and water and a stable global climate. As much progress as the building sector has made over the past decade, there is much, much more to do.”


The free report, sponsored by Johnson Controls and Autodesk, may be downloaded at

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