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logoShaping Tomorrow's Built Environment Today

Decarbonizing the Future

By Kelly Barraza, ASHRAE Journal Managing Editor

WASHINGTON, D.C.–In October, HVAC&R industry stakeholders gathered for the 2023 Decarbonization Conference for the Built Environment where thought leaders, consulting engineers, architects and others met to discuss prospective, exciting opportunities in reducing the carbon footprint of buildings.

The subject of how to achieve decarbonization goals in an industry fraught with jockeying interests came up throughout the meeting. “How to succeed in an industry with so many disparate players? I think simplicity is going to be key,” said Laurie Kerr, principal climate advisor at U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), during a Building Industry Decarbonization Collaboration panel. “We have to move away from overly complex requirements and formulas that really scare people away. We must move toward simpler directions that everybody in our industry can understand. Embrace simplicity and the big picture and let go of some of that perfectionism we love so much.”

At the same panel, chaired by Clay Nesler, The Nesler Group, the challenges in adhering to a gamut of recent legislation passed by U.S. federal, state and local governments on reducing building carbon emissions were touched on by Don Davis, Vice President of Advocacy and Buildings Codes at the Buildings Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).

“BOMA is being impacted by all these regulations. We own the buildings. So when the state, local or the federal government start to implement a regulation against us, we are the ones that have to make sure we meet those goals,” said Davis.

From left: Clay Nesler (The Nesler Group) led talks at the Building Industry Decarbonization Collaboration panel on Wednesday October 25th, 2023, with Emily Grandstaff-Rice, (American Institute of Architects [AIA], ASHRAE President Ginger Scoggins (Engineered Designs Inc.), Laurie Kerr (USGBC), Lauri Gilmer (International Facility Management Association [IFMA]), Don Davis (BOMA) and Billy Grayson (Urban Land Institute) in attendance.

In a lightning round on predicted energy performance versus actual energy performance, Davis also noted the scarcity of accurate data available to building owners.

“It all goes back to data,” Davis said. “Do we have the proper data and can we get it? From my members, this is the No. 1 problem. We cannot get the data from utilities on energy use and the whole building, and if we had a very clear picture on what energy is being used, we could then identify areas where it needed to be improved. We can’t do modeling unless we have the data.”

Several more panels were held over the course of the conference with wide-ranging topics including grid decarbonization, whole life and embodied carbon reduction strategies and navigating financial options for decarbonizing buildings.

Bing Liu (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory), Kinga Porst Hydras (General Service Administration), Lindsey Falasca (White House Council on Environmental Quality), Mary Sotos (U.S. DOE) and Hayes Jones (U.S. DOE) spoke on planning and financing decarbonization strategies based on U.S. federal programs available to HVAC&R stakeholders.

Whole life carbon [1] was on the docket in D.C., as was discussion on global warming potential (GWP). GWP measures greenhouse gas (GHG) heat absorption relative to CO2 and is frequently evaluated over extended periods of time (20-year GWP [20 years], 100-year GWP [100 years]). Webly Lynn Bowles, Associate Director at the New Buildings Institute, cited in her presentation “Whole Life Carbon for Building Systems” that 20-year GWP was particularly crucial in short-lived GHGs like methane and refrigerants. Four other members of the ASHRAE Task Force for Building Decarbonization also presented with Bowles in this panel, outlining strategies to lowering carbon emissions within mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems of buildings.

Ghina Annan, Stantec, who also spoke at the seminar and chaired the committee of the forthcoming publication, ASHRAE Whole Life Carbon Guide for Building Systems, noted the mission of the guide was “to craft a guide that empowers building professionals, from engineers to designers, operators to owners, to understand and reduce the entire life-cycle GHG emissions of MEP systems.”

In his keynote speech, author and climate journalist Chris Turner framed the opening of the conference with optimism for the future of decarbonization of the built environment, “This global energy transition – now emergent, now genuinely global in scale and scope and also increasingly inevitable with a momentum that continues to build with staggering speed by the day. That’s not really the story we always hear when we talk about the climate crisis or response to it. Reducing emissions as fast as possible. It’s not a good news story. We’re not often seeing ‘climate’ and ‘optimist’ in such close quarters.”

“It really is an extraordinary and powerful and inspirational moment,” Turner continued. “This pivotal moment which we are in where we know now we have the tools. We are in fact making the right kinds of investments. The right kinds of infrastructure developments here in the United States.”

The conference was co-organized by the AIA, APPA (formerly the Association of Physical Plant Administrators), BOMA and IFMA and novel for ASHRAE in its intentional inclusion of and collaboration with key industry associations.

ASHRAE continues to hold topical conferences on decarbonization, with the 2024 ASHRAE International Conference on Building Decarbonization scheduled for April 17-19, 2024, in Madrid, Spain. Another conference will be held Oct. 21-23, 2024, in New York City and will be focused on decarbonizing existing tall buildings.

If you are interested in attending these meetings, please visit

[1] Emissions associated with the entire life cycle of building products, including extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal, become a significant portion of the building’s overall carbon footprint. This holistic approach, known as whole life carbon, accounts for both operational and embodied carbon. Source: Webly Lynn Bowles, Associate Director at the New Buildings Institute