Climate policy: What to expect in 2021

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As the Biden administration and new Congress get to work, AIA’s bipartisan Architects Policy Platform is a roadmap for progress. When it comes to climate action in particular, architects are calling for strong, science-based polices to curb carbon emissions – a position that is already seeing traction under the new administration.

In fact, President Biden demonstrated his commitment to nearly every one of AIA’s nine climate action priorities during his campaign and through two executive orders he signed mere hours after his inauguration. According to Mike Davis, FAIA, chair of AIA’s Government Advocacy Committee, this is significant for the industry.  

“The fact that the president of United States is talking about these issues and signing executive orders to reach those goals means there will be cross-departmental movement in terms of attention and funding,” said Davis. “There's such a fantastic alignment between the Biden-Harris agenda and the industry’s agenda that we’d love to do everything immediately. However, I think being a part of infrastructure discussions and legislation is our top priority right now.”

Infrastructure

AIA will utilize several advocacy strategies to ensure residential and commercial buildings, which generate almost 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, are a part of any future infrastructure package. This includes a Virtual Hill Day event during the upcoming Annual Grassroots Leadership Conference. On that day, architects will connect with their representatives to discuss how AIA’s climate actions can be translated into tangible legislation that could encourage greater investment in public buildings to use high-performing building materials or upgrade their heating and cooling systems.

The bipartisan subject of infrastructure continues to be a priority for Biden, which he made clear during a January 14 speech saying, “It’s time to stop talking about infrastructure and to finally start building an infrastructure, so we can be more competitive.” To begin the process, while Congress works on a new coronavirus relief package, the president signed the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. The order announced that it will be the administration’s policy to listen to science, improve public health, protect our environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change.

“Through this order, we're seeing the president promote science-based regulations and research. He’s also directed all cabinet-level agencies to review every regulation with an explicit focus on climate action,” said Davis. “This holistic approach is really remarkable.”

Net-Zero Energy Codes

AIA also supports creating federal incentives that encourage the adoption of net-zero carbon energy codes nationwide. These codes would require new construction to achieve net-zero emissions through energy efficiency implementation, sustainable material choices, and renewable power use. The regulation of building codes lies with the states, so updating them in each state would be incredibly time intensive. Davis believes a federal incentive to change these codes would be the most efficient way to achieve this goal and notes that a similar strategy has been deployed before.

“When I was young, the drinking age was 18 in my state, but next to us it was 21,” he said. “Eventually, the federal government didn’t want to have different drinking ages from state to state, so they decided to tie highway improvement dollars to the adoption of a uniform drinking age. If states changed their drinking age to 21, they would receive highway improvement dollars.” Davis explained that “the same concept could be applied in this case with Washington incentivizing states to adopt net-zero carbon energy codes, which would make them eligible to receive desired federal funding.”

Accomplishing this goal would require an all-hands-on-deck approach, but the climate benefits for the United States, and the world, would be unprecedented.

Paris Climate Agreement

Achieving ambitious climate actions can be accelerated when experts with a variety of perspectives participate in the discussion. That’s, in part, why President Biden signed the executive order to accept and rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement—an international treaty working to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. The United States was one of the original 196 participants when the treaty was first adopted in 2015 but left the Accord in 2017.

Our return, as Davis explained, puts the U.S. back into a leadership position and sends the message that America is serious about climate change. “With the U.S. government back at the table, we can provide expertise and take actions in a range of areas, including architecture,” said Davis. “When you look around, most of the homes and commercial structures you see, and those yet to be constructed, will still be in use when we reach target years. It’s imperative that architects contribute everything we can to transform the built environment we’re tasked with designing and be part of climate change solutions.”

Learn more about AIA’s Architects Policy Platform and get involved with AIA Advocacy.

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