Can This Innovative Methodology Measure Health and Safety in Buildings?

Our journey to make buildings more energy-efficient is not just a quest for cost savings—it’s a powerful weapon against climate change and a protector of public health. Yet, until now, we’ve largely remained in the dark about the actual gains from these energy-saving endeavors.

Key Takeaways:

  1. CoBE Methodology Unveils Energy Efficiency Impact: The Co-benefits of the Built Environment (CoBE) methodology, developed by leading researchers, quantifies the tangible environmental and health benefits of energy-saving measures in buildings, shedding light on their real impact.
  2. Geographic Location Matters: The location of a building plays a pivotal role in determining the health and climate outcomes of energy use reduction. A case study found significant disparities in co-benefits across regions, emphasizing the need for location-specific energy strategies.
  3. 3. Health Benefits Gain Value: The CoBE tool assigns a monetary value to health benefits resulting from emissions reductions, elevating the importance of health considerations in energy decisions and fostering a more sustainable and healthier future.
Conceptual representation of CoBE's impact on health and safety in buildings.

Shedding Light on the Intersection of Energy, Health, and Climate

Enter a consortium of forward-thinking researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston University, and Oregon State University. They’ve unveiled an ingenious method for assessing the tangible environmental and health outcomes of energy conservation in buildings.

This breakthrough methodology, showcased in a game-changing paper published on September 8 in the esteemed journal Building and Environment, forms the bedrock of a visionary four-year initiative dubbed “Co-benefits of the Built Environment” (CoBE). While CoBE initially tackled the national-level effects of energy efficiency, the new approach enables a granular examination—be it at the regional, municipal, or even the microcosmic scale of individual buildings.

Joseph Allen, a luminary in the field of exposure assessment science at Harvard Chan School and the senior mind behind this paradigm shift, underscores its significance: “Our choices regarding buildings wield a profound influence on both our environment and our well-being. CoBE marks a double milestone—it augments the conversation from a solitary focus on carbon emissions to the inclusion of health, and it equips us with a crystal ball to enhance present-day decisions regarding the consequences of energy-saving actions in buildings.”

This innovative methodology is no secret; it’s publicly accessible through the CoBE website. It empowers building owners, operators, and investors to peer into the future, foreseeing the climate and health dividends of their energy decisions right up to the year 2050. The website, a treasure trove of information, provides a user-friendly toolkit enriched with enlightening blogs, FAQs, illuminating case studies, and captivating instructional videos.

To harness the online tool, all one needs to do is input key details about a specific building or a cluster of structures—its geographical location, dimensions, energy sources, and energy consumption. The tool, a computational marvel, crunches the numbers to unravel the building’s energy consumption and emissions footprint, while also deciphering the associated economic values tied to climate and health impacts. Users can then experiment with various energy usage scenarios to forecast the potential benefits.

Valuing Health Benefits in the Energy Equation

The CoBE tool leverages a diverse array of models and datasets. To predict emissions reductions stemming from energy conservation, it taps into energy and emissions projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. To gauge the financial ramifications of climate impacts, it draws upon the Social Cost of Carbon, a pioneering government tool that assigns a monetary value to the long-term repercussions of each ton of greenhouse gas emissions. For quantifying health impacts, CoBE delves into the grim realm of premature deaths caused by exposure to fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5)—a grievous byproduct of fossil fuel combustion—along with the daunting health costs it entails.

In a world clamoring for sustainable solutions, CoBE and its transformative methodology emerge as beacons of hope, illuminating the path to a future where our buildings not only conserve energy but also safeguard our climate and well-being.

In the realm of energy strategy, carbon offsets, and emissions reduction tactics, the value of health benefits has long languished in obscurity. According to co-author and CoBE project co-PI Jonathan Buonocore, an assistant professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health, “Health benefits often go unvalued in decisions around energy strategy, carbon offsets, and other carbon emissions reduction measures.” But here’s where the paradigm shifts: “The CoBE tool can put a monetary value on the health benefits of emissions reductions.”

To unveil the transformational potential of the CoBE tool, the co-authors embarked on a journey of discovery, crafting a case study that simulated the impact of a hypothetical reduction in electricity consumption by buildings across the United States, spanning from 2018 to 2050. The results unfurled a tapestry of insight, revealing that the geographical location of a building wielded profound influence over the health and climate ramifications of energy use curtailment. Consider this: in 2018, for every dollar saved on electricity, a specific region in Wisconsin and Michigan could anticipate reaping $0.52 to $0.70 in health and climate co-benefits, stemming from the reduced consumption of fossil fuel energy. Gazing into the future, the year 2050 painted an even more enticing picture, with every dollar saved on electricity translating to an additional $0.02 to $0.81 in savings attributed to health and climate co-benefits. “The CoBE tool offers a user-friendly avenue for decision-makers and stakeholders to evaluate their current performance and to quantify the health and climate co-benefits associated with various energy conservation scenarios, ultimately enhancing the well-being of individuals and the planet,” declared lead author and CoBE project co-PI Parichehr Salimifard, assistant professor of architectural engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

This study was made possible by the generous support of the Login5 Foundation, blazing a trail toward a future where the true worth of health benefits takes center stage in shaping our energy landscape, promising a brighter, healthier world for all.