In Every House, Keys to Fight Climate Change

Brown's book discusses ways alternative energy can be used to decrease our carbon emissions.
Brown's book discusses ways alternative energy can be used to decrease our carbon emissions. (Earth Policy Institute)
  Enlarge Photo    

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, February 9, 2008

I have devoted many columns to sustainability issues in terms of a single house. But every so often I like to pull back for the truly wide shot. From a global perspective, what is the state of our planet, and how might this affect our housing choices?

There is no better place to get a sense of this than the book "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization" by environmentalist Lester R. Brown. His ability to make a complicated subject accessible to the general reader is remarkable, and he presents surprisingly recent material, frequently citing reports and statistics from just a few months ago.

Of the topics Brown covers, renewable energy is the most directly related to home building. The application of the rest of the book to home building requires some reading between the lines, but not much.

As Brown cites one stark statistic or report after another, it's clear that we cannot expect business as usual in any endeavor. The pressure exerted on the Earth's natural systems by 6.6 billion people and their basic need to eat, as well as by the nearly universal desire for a modern lifestyle, will eventually affect the supply and price of almost every material.

Even the simple desire for paper will have a profound effect on home building. To cite one of Brown's many statistics, if the consumption per person in China reaches the same level that it is in the United States -- a not-unlikely possibility by 2030, he argues -- the people of China will need twice as much paper as the entire world now produces.

And China is only one country. The people of India and many other developing countries will also want paper. We in America can go paperless with a vengeance and become ardent recyclers, but the demand for wood pulp will still force change in many directions, including the way we build our houses.

Brown discusses in some detail the many ways that human activities, on a scale unimaginable 50 years ago, are wreaking havoc with all our natural systems: our forests and croplands, our rivers and lakes, our oceans and air.

He follows this with a presentation of achievable solutions. He is generally optimistic about the future, if we act now.

A very bright spot is the potential for renewable energy to control global warming. This chapter should be required reading for every homeowner and builder, because climate change and buildings are closely connected.

In the United States, about 43 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the principal component of greenhouse gases, are building-related. Half our buildings are houses. Some of these emissions are produced on-site by gas-burning furnaces and water heaters, but most are produced off-site at power plants that run on coal or natural gas.

Huge efforts have been made to reduce home-energy use and consequently greenhouse gas emissions. There are, however, more than 80 million houses in the United States.

Brown discusses a number of alternate approaches that involve going to the source and changing the way local utilities generate electricity. By using existing technologies, we can power our entire national electric grid with clean energy tapped from the sun, the Earth and moving water.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company