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At the Forefront of Sustainability - Carbon Accounting

LEED and sustainability were once newly discussed concepts that a handful of our clients were exploring; now they are at the forefront of our design process. Today, there is a new design process we're preparing for - carbon accounting. Federal mandates now require carbon emissions accounting for federal agencies. While the mandates have been in place for several years, many agencies are just beginning to realize they are behind in their required accounting and reporting. The need for carbon (aka greenhouse gas emissions) accounting expertise will grow as these agencies learn more about the accounting requirements and start to face strict deadlines for reporting their emissions.

There is a close link between carbon reduction and energy reduction. We are already documenting carbon reduction associated with energy-solving measures on several sustainability studies for the U.S. Department of State, Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO). As carbon accounting is a relatively new field in the United States, few are qualified and capable of providing these services.

Our sustainability manager, Maureen Drullard, was recently qualified by the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) as the company’s first Certified Carbon & GHG Reduction Manager (CRM). This qualification recognizes professionals as leaders in the growing field of carbon reduction.

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are primarily associated with the burning of fossil fuels (chiefly coal, oil, and natural gas); however, they come from many sources. The largest contributors to the total US emissions are the electricity generation and transportation sectors. Significant emissions also come from other commercial and agricultural activity and from residential and industrial buildings. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, is responsible for 25% of global GHG emissions, more than any other country. On a per capita basis, US emissions are roughly twice as high as those of the EU and Japan and five times the world average. U.S. emissions are projected to continue to rise, whereas emissions are projected to hold steady in the EU and to decline in Japan. Emissions are rising fastest in developing countries, though their per capita emissions remain much lower than those of developed countries.

Scientific consensus links GHG emissions from human activities to global climate change. Scientists have confirmed that the earth is warming, and that GHG emissions from cars, power plants, and other manmade sources - rather than natural variations in climate - are the primary cause. Governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and individuals increasingly agree that the risks to our physical environment and the global economy from climate change are both real and significant. The public debate centers around what can and should be done to reduce GHG emissions.

The primary document currently governing carbon emissions in the United States is Executive Order (E.O.) 13514, which was signed into legislation by President Barack Obama on October 5, 2009. This legislation requires federal agencies to measure, report, and reduce their Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by an agency-determined target percentage by 2020 (measured against a 2008 baseline). Carbon emissions are categorized into three emissions categories:

Scope 1: Direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the federal agency;

Scope 2: Direct greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by a federal agency; and

Scope 3: Greenhouse gas emissions from sources not owned or directly controlled by a federal agency but related to agency activities such as vendor supply chains, delivery services, and employee travel and commuting.

The legislation also requires that beginning in 2020, all new federal buildings that enter the planning process be designed to achieve net zero energy by 2030.

Currently, the Executive Order is only applicable to the activities, personnel, resources, and facilities of an agency that are located within the U.S. but the head of an agency can choose to require that legislation should apply to facilities located out of the U.S.. OBO does not require compliance for their overseas facilities; but, they are in the process of developing this capability in the event that reporting for international locations becomes a requirement.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also sets and regulates GHG emissions permitting thresholds for our nation’s largest GHG emitters under the Clean Air Act. The GHG regulations within the Clean Air Act focus on new facilities as well as existing facilities that are modified, imposing limitations on their allowable GHG emissions and requiring permits for heavy emitters.

There is no required measuring protocol or reporting software; both are left to an agency’s discretion. However, The Climate Registry does appear to be at the forefront of agency-used protocols. The Climate Registry was developed in 2007 by the U.S., Canadian provinces, Mexico, and Tribal Nations. It is a common, voluntary GHG reporting program for North America. The Climate Registry is the broadest GHG initiative in North America, with membership covering 80 % of the populations of the US and Canada. More information on The Climate Registry can be found at www.theclimateregistry.org. The General Reporting Protocol v1.1 is available on their website for free download.

Generally, when talking about GHG emissions, we refer to carbon (carbon dioxide, CO2). Other greenhouse gases are converted to a “CO2 equivalent” or “CO2e” in order to allow GHGs to be compared on a common basis, i.e. on the ability of each greenhouse gas to trap heat in the atmosphere. Global Warming Potential (GWP) factors are assigned to each GHG to represent the ratio of heat-trapping ability of a GHG relative to that of carbon dioxide. The most commonly tracked GHGs (and those required to be reported by The Climate Registry protocol) are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Others of note include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

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