More than any other available measure, promoting the green design, construction, renovation, and operation of buildings could cut North American greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling climate change, according to a report issued by the trinational Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

North America’s buildings cause the annual release of more than 2,200 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, about 35 percent of the continent’s total. The report says rapid market uptake of currently available and emerging advanced energy saving technologies could result in more than 1,700 fewer megatons of CO2 emissions in 2030, compared to projected emissions that year following a business-as-usual approach.

It is common now for more advanced green buildings to reduce energy usage by 30, 40, or even 50 percent over conventional buildings, with the most efficient buildings now performing more than 70 percent better than conventional properties, according to the report.

Despite proven environmental, economic and health benefits, however, green building today accounts for just 2 percent of the new non-residential building market, less than half of one percent of the residential market in the United States and Canada, and less than that in Mexico.

The report, “Green Building in North America: Opportunities and Challenges,” is the result of a two-year study by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which has representation from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It was prepared with advice from an international advisory group of prominent developers and architects, sustainability and energy experts, real estate appraisers, and brokers, together with local and national government representatives.

Even with rapid growth projected in the green building market across all three countries, the report says public and private sectors must embrace substantial changes to the planning, development and financing of commercial and residential buildings to overcome what it says are significant barriers to the widespread adoption of high-performance buildings throughout North America.

Report authors describe a number of disincentives to green building to be overcome, for example, how to encourage developers to incur the marginal cost of green building features when the long-term energy-saving benefits will be passed on to the new owners or tenants.

They recommend ways to accelerate the market uptake of green building and make it the standard practice for all new construction and renovation of existing buildings in North America. Among its recommendations, the report calls upon North American government, industry, and nongovernmental leaders to:

  • Create national, multi-stakeholder task forces charged with achieving a vision for green building in North America.

  • Support the creation of a North American set of principles and planning tools for green building.

  • Set clear targets to achieve rapid adoption of green building in North America, including aggressive targets for carbon-neutral or net zero-energy buildings, together with performance monitoring to track progress toward these targets.

  • Enhance support for green building, including efforts to promote private sector investment and proper valuation methods.

  • Increase knowledge of green building through research and development, capacity building, and the use of labels and disclosures on green building performance.

Studies show that the cost premium to deliver sustainable properties to the market has declined considerably in recent years and that experienced teams are delivering them at costs competitive with conventional buildings.

The U.S. green building industry, which was almost non-existent a decade ago, is now worth upwards of $12 billion.