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Building Efficiency Isn’t Cool, But It’s Critical. How Can We Spur a Global Movement?

Tapping into building energy efficiency is one of the most effective solutions to meet climate goals. Photo by Berkeley Lab/Flickr

The time has never been better – or more critical – for spurring a global building efficiency movement. Building efficiency is one of the most effective near-term opportunities for achieving climate and energy goals. Better efficiency policies for new and existing building can easily result in 25-50 percent reductions in energy demand and help alleviate many urban challenges – from climate change to public health, underemployment and energy insecurity.

But despite the efforts of various global platforms and partnerships to date, there has been little political backing for building efficiency policy at the national and international level.

In May, World Resources Institute and the Alliance to Save Energy convened more than 40 global government, industry and NGO building efficiency leaders at the Energy Efficiency Global Forum in Copenhagen to kick off a discussion on how best to create a more effective global movement.

With many of the community’s biggest players in the room, the roundtable was a frank discussion of challenges and opportunities. Participants discussed measures of success, what they can learn from others, ways to create stronger political support, and opportunities to leverage the capabilities and relationships of existing efforts.

What Is Success?

To start, each participant was asked to define one measure of success on a 10-year timeline. Responses covered the entire range of building efficiency benefits, including reduced energy use, improved health and wellness, increased productivity, increased real estate values, long-term sustainability, greater resilience and de-carbonization.

Other measures of success focused on specific actions, including more building audits and retrofits, net-zero new construction, life-cycle design optimization, and increased availability of financing, low-income programs, student education, and implementation of building codes and equipment standards.

Finally, several participants suggested indicators linked to people, including improved public understanding of the link between energy efficiency and climate change, continuous engagement by decision-makers, and finding ways to increase the image of energy efficiency (e.g., “Tesla-level cool”).

What’s clear? There is no single metric of what success in the building efficiency world looks like right now, which was a hint of things to come.

Learning from Others

Research from Stanford University suggests there are five conditions required for successful collective action: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support organizations. Based on these criteria, roundtable participants identified missing elements holding energy efficiency efforts back.

One missing element is simple messaging. Take the elimination of lead in gasoline. The movement’s success included a compelling, clear message: Banning lead in gasoline is good for both people – especially children – and the economy. The target audience was national and sub-national governments, particularly the state of California, which has large numbers of car users and could set a major precedent, and outreach campaigns were tailored to specific audiences through political power mapping. Once the political will was built, the campaign then transitioned to helping with technical assistance and sharing of best practices.

Another missing element in efforts to date are easy ways to contribute to a dramatic, collective effect, like WWF Earth Hour, when millions of people around the world switch off their lights for one hour to show support for reducing climate change emissions. These type of bottom-up campaigns can be a “spark” that inspires a movement to spread, similar to how one Delhi suburb’s experiment has led to a national car-free movement in India.

In the building efficiency realm, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction is focused on collective action but is missing an inspiring message and stories. Efforts to promote green schools, starting in 2006, generated dialogue with legislators and advocacy groups, but the various resulting activities were not effectively organized or mutually reinforcing. While one organization can start a movement, it requires the coordinated and collective action of multiple platforms and partners to be successful.

Creating Political Momentum

There was much discussion of the need to promote building efficiency as a means to achieve a range of benefits, rather than as an end in and of itself. The Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program is a good example of a philanthropic-led campaign with a clear social objective in which cooling and refrigeration efficiency are being harnessed to increase comfort, improve health and reduce food waste.

The introduction of Tokyo’s energy conservation policies after the Fukushima disaster is an example of using energy efficiency as a means address energy supply issues – as well as the importance of timing. Normally, it can be difficult to get government leaders and the public interested in building energy codes since they do not have an obvious personal connection. But after disasters, attention can quickly shift to services, like access to energy, that are otherwise taken for granted. Similarly, Mexico City was much more motivated to adopt new building codes after the 2017 earthquake, due to the code’s additional safety benefits.

We also need to speak the language of our audience. For politicians, this means talking about job creation, re-election and constituent concerns. The growing emphasis by national governments on improving energy productivity – thus decoupling GDP growth from energy consumption – provides another good opportunity to focus on the economic benefits of energy efficiency. For business executives, promotion efforts should focus on profits.

One complexity with messaging is that energy efficiency has a different connotation in developing countries where energy access and poverty issues dominate. To be relevant, the language needs to be tailored for different regions and demographics.

Next? The Global Climate Action Summit

Discussions were direct and productive, and they’re the first step towards figuring out a stronger approach as a community. What’s needed now is concrete efforts to build on the momentum.

To that end, the Alliance to Save Energy and WRI will host a follow-up roundtable at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this September. The roundtable will focus on three critical issues explored in Copenhagen: 1) The coordination of activities across organizations, 2) the development of specific campaigns for target audiences, and 3) implementing effective communications strategies built on common messaging and appropriate messengers.

We look forward to working together with the community to spur an effective, global building efficiency movement – we know none of us can do this alone! If you are interested in joining us in San Francisco, please be in touch.

Jennifer Layke is the Global Director for Energy at World Resources Institute.

Laura Van Wie McGrory is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for the Alliance to Save Energy.

Clay Nesler is Vice President of Global Sustainability and Industry Initiatives at Johnson Controls and serves as a Senior Advisor to WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.