Milwaukee skyline.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Credit: Visit Milwaukee / Courtesy

The following commentary was written by Matt Donath, an advocate for community-centered solutions to climate change. Donath previously served as sustainability program coordinator for the city of Milwaukee and continues this work as a senior policy analyst at Edison Energy, an advisory firm that navigates carbon and energy saving solutions for companies. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Cities looking to fast-track their climate goals can start by talking about the steel-and-concrete, carbon-hungry elephants in the room: skyscrapers — commercial and residential — consistently account for a whopping 70% of cities’ carbon emissions.

In response to growing urgency to slash emissions, buildings are an attractive place to focus. Energy-saving technologies like heat pumps are mature and the path is straightforward relative to other sectors. So, what’s the hold up?

One factor is uneven policy. Efficiency programs are traditionally optional, supporting climate-conscious property owners but leaving those who don’t see the point to pursue business as usual. A growing wave of “building performance standards” aims to speed up local government’s decarbonization efforts and provide greater incentives for action.

The typical blueprint follows two steps. First, a local government implements energy benchmarking, which requires large property owners to annually report their baseline energy usage. Next comes performance standards, which use this data to inform efficiency targets tailored to each building’s baseline.

The emissions reporting alone can be revealing. New York City found half of its buildings’ carbon footprint comes from just 2% of the buildings — the leakiest, most energy-inefficient ones.

To address this, New York in 2019 passed the Climate Mobilization Act, widely seen as the most ambitious climate plan of any city in the world.

Its centerpiece, Local Law 97, requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to stay below an increasingly smaller emissions budget. Starting in 2024, the law aims to curb building emissions 40% by 2030, and 80%by 2050. Property owners must invest in energy efficiency retrofits to avoid penalties.

As real estate firm JLL describes, the Empire State Building saved $4.4 million a year on electricity by retrofitting all 6,514 windows (reusing 96% of the original frames), and capturing energy from its elevators’ brakes previously wasted as heat.

Recent policy developments center on new construction, like Colorado and Washington state beefing up their climate-centric building codes. This is useful, but does not address the huge challenge of retrofitting older, more carbon-intensive buildings. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found it would take centuries to retrofit all existing buildings without performance standards to spur adoption.

The current White House, not one to wait on climate action, earlier this year announced the National Building Performance Standards Coalition. This first-of-its-kind pledge commits 33 local and state governments to collaborating on best practices and implementing performance standards by Earth Day 2024. Combined, these jurisdictions make up 22% of the U.S. population.

The coalition provides technical toolkits and financial support to the tune of $1.8 billion allocated to buildings via last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Local governments still have to do the legislative lifting, but the hope is that momentum will snowball and make such laws commonplace.

Montgomery County, Maryland, last month became the latest jurisdiction to fulfill its coalition pledge. Bill 16-21 adds minimum performance standards for large residential and commercial buildings. This now includes non-residential buildings over 50,000 feet that were previously excluded from the county’s benchmarking requirements.

The new law sets one big compliance deadline in 2033, as opposed to the graduated standards in places like St. Louis and NYC. Such differences in strategy will help advocates continue to refine best practices.

As sustainability program coordinator for the city of Milwaukee, I led a team aimed at reducing energy use from municipal operations by 20%. We used a $2 million Energy Saving Performance Contract to upgrade a chiller and air handling unit, and install LED lighting at a public library. The energy savings from this project will pay for itself over the life of the equipment. 

I also managed the city’s PACE program, which helped commercial property owners affordably finance energy efficiency upgrades. The program was redesigned in 2021, incentivizing high-performance projects that exceed code or other efficiency metrics.

Milwaukee launched a climate planning process in late 2019 that is expected to be complete by the end of this year. The city recently joined the national BPS coalition, which pairs with the city’s goal of reducing city-wide emissions 45% by 2030.

Precedent shows that federally backed efficiency programs do well. The report this year from the Obama-era initiative Better Buildings found that the 900+ participating organizations have saved $15 billion and 155 million tons of CO2 (equivalent to 20 million homes’ annual energy use) through ambitious efficiency and decarbonization efforts.

While it’s a new decade and a new initiative, the math is the same: these building retrofits pay for themselves directly in avoided energy costs, and indirectly by lowering carbon emissions. Building performance standards are essential to serious action on climate change, and a tangible solution to advocate for in your local area. Here’s a map of existing standards across the country. Is your city on the list yet?