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The Long Road to Decarbonization: Past, Present and (Possible) Future

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©2023 This excerpt taken from the article of the same name which appeared in ASHRAE Journal, vol. 65, no. 2, February 2023.

About the Authors
Thomas Lawrence, Ph.D., is a professor of practice at the College of Engineering, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. Costas Balaras, Ph.D., is the research director of the Group Energy Conservation, National Observatory of Athens, Athens, Greece.

In the buildings sector, we see a trend toward what is now known as “building decarbonization,” which is also a major priority for ASHRAE. In this work, we show how environmental challenges and related regulations have risen to become global issues, what the current standings are regarding building decarbonization and speculate on where this trend may lead us in the future. We also provide a brief history of how environmental awareness grew globally over the past half century and how that has led to the recognition of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant that needs to be addressed.

What has been termed as the “green awakening” started in earnest with the growing environ­mental problems first widely noticed in the 1960s. For example, in the United States, oil slicks on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, had been catching on fire for years. A rela­tively small fire occurred on July 22, 1969, which “went viral” due to photographs of the event that were published and was a key impetus in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1970. Around this time, significant air pollution problems in major U.S. cities also led to the passage of the Clean Air Act. Taken together, these events helped lead to the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, which has grown to be a global annual event.

In the 1970s, there was no scientific consensus on the topic of climate change as to whether Earth was headed toward an ice age or a warming climate caused by human activity, such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. National Geographic published an article in the late 1970s that raised this very question, but by the turn of the century, the likelihood of an ice age occurring was overshad­owed by rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and their impact on warming Earth’s climate.

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