Improved Building Efficiency Could Save Thousands of Lives Each Year
The Biden administration has pledged to achieve 100% clean energy by 2035, and in May, announced it would be developing new Energy Star standards to increase the adoption of efficient technology. A recent Yale study has found that increased building and appliance efficiency could save thousands of lives each year as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. As states move to mandate efficiency and renewable energy in new buildings, this life-saving scenario could become a reality.
Why This Matters
The nation's buildings are responsible for 40% of total US energy consumption, which contributes significantly to air pollution, including particulate matter (called PM2.5) linked to heart and lung diseases and asthma. Marginalized communities are often most vulnerable to air pollution and often suffer higher rates of these conditions. Researchers found that by reducing the amount of energy needed to power the nation’s buildings, air quality could be significantly improved, administering a dose of fresh air -- and environmental justice -- to communities across the country.
What's more, is that federal weatherization assistance programs already exist and are successful at ensuring low-income homeowners the ability to increase their home energy use efficiency. These programs are just waiting to be scaled.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Researchers from Yale School of the Environment Economics, Yale's SEARCH Center, and the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science laid out two scenarios for improved building efficiency:
- In an "optimistic" scenario, a 50% increase in appliance efficiency and a 60-90% increase in outer shell efficiency could save up to 5,100 premature deaths per year.
- In an "intermediate" scenario -- still a significant improvement from today's conditions -- up to 2,900 lives could be saved annually.
These results were based on estimated improvements to outdoor air quality, but researchers say that indoor air quality could suffer if outer shell efficiency isn’t implemented thoughtfully. "If you close the building shell and don't accompany it with recirculation and filtration upgrades, then you can actually face some health impacts," said Professor Kenneth Gillingham, an author of the study. However, even without these filtration upgrades, the researchers found that 1,800 to 3,600 lives could be saved annually.
Additionally, improved building efficiency wouldn’t only reduce air pollution from powering buildings; it could also protect residents from air pollution sources such as wildfires. As wildfires grow more extensive and destructive with climate change, an added layer of protection could protect millions of people from additional smoke and PM2.5 inhalation. Gillingham says that these improvements could be even more impactful if paired with a carbon tax and that failing to improve efficiency as we move toward net-zero emissions could cost lives.