The Empire State Building is undergoing a 20 mio. USD retrofit to reduce its energy usage by 40%. - Wikipedia Commons

It’s the beginning of November and the Worldwatch office building’s central A/C is still blowing full blast. I’m writing this blog in a wool sweater. Can there be any better inspiration for discussing the issue of energy efficiency? Let’s explore this time some of the strategies available for greening the building stock, taking examples from both sides of the Atlantic.

In the United States and Europe alike, many existing buildings are old, energy inefficient, and often poorly managed. Yet half of all the buildings around today will still be standing 30 years from now. Enhancing the energy efficiency of these structures and adapting them to a changing climate is therefore essential. So is educating citizens to increase their energy savings.

On October 27, at the invitation of Ulrich Braess, Director of the Goethe Institute in Washington D.C., guest speakers Monika Griefahn (former Green Party Member of the Federal German Parliament), Kurt Shickman (Director of Research for the Energy Future Coalition), and Brooks Rainwater (Director of Local Relations at the American Institute of Architects) discussed the challenges of retrofitting buildings in the United States and Germany.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, three main sectors—energy utilities, manufacturing, and transportation—are the usual suspects. Yet residential and commercial buildings together account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions, more than either the transportation (34 percent) or industry (26 percent) sectors. The share is slightly lower in Europe, averaging 36 percent, but still represents more than one-third of regional emissions. In both the U.S. and Europe, buildings also account for some 40 percent of total primary energy use. Hence, they represent a key challenge for future energy and climate policies.

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buildings, energy efficiency, energy policy, Europe, feed-in tariffs, Germany, GHG emissions, Green Buildings, green jobs, USA

The quarrel between China, the United States, Europe, and Japan about China’s rare earth export policy has heated up again over the past week. Rare earth minerals are indispensable in the transition to a low-carbon world, as they are used in clean energy technologies such as wind turbines, solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, and batteries. At the moment, the most troubling aspect of rare earths is the power that China—which mines 95 percent of the world’s supply—currently enjoys. China stopped delivering the minerals to Japan on September 21 and to the United States and Europe on October 18.

The race for rare earths is well underway - Flickr Creative Commons / Juanedc

The latest sparring began in Europe on October 22, when Werner Schnappauf, Director General of the Federation of German Industries, announced that German companies are facing shortages in the supply of lanthanum, a rare earth used in PV cells. Simultaneously, industrial giants Bosch and Siemens disclosed that they might face bottlenecks in their production if China continues its protectionist path.

On October 24, Japan’s trade minister urged China to resume exports of rare earth materials that are crucial for manufacturing. The next day, the United States banded with the EU and Japan to consider filing a World Trade Organization lawsuit to protest China’s illicit export restrictions. Simultaneously, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to the G20 heads of government highlighting the “acute threat” of lack of open access to rare earths. On October 26, Germany asked France, which will assume the presidency of the G20 next month, to put raw materials at the top of the agenda for the group’s November meeting in Seoul, Korea—with the goal of drafting a strategy paper on combating China’s restrictive rare earth policy.

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China, Germany, Green Technology, rare earth elements, renewable energy, technology transfer, trade, USA

Prof. Christoph Stefes - Source: Ecologic Institute

Germany often sets the example in the renewable energy policy field. Last week, the tradition continued as Professor Christoph Stefes from the University of Colorado at Denver and the Ecologic Institute in Berlin, and Professor Frank Laird from the University of Denver, praised German policies during a presentation at Ecologic’s Washington office. Their message was clear: Germany’s renewable power generation is skyrocketing while the U.S.’s stagnates.

This hasn’t always been the case. Prior to 1990, renewables followed similar paths in Germany and the United States. Yet Germany was able to make good use of a window of opportunity that opened up in 1990–92, while the U.S. stumbled. During this period, not only did renewable energy sources gain more credit and public support following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, but Germany’s political system also faced an upheaval due to the nation’s reunification.

The result of this divergence in paths is now obvious. In absolute terms, U.S. total renewable power capacity in 2009 was greater than Germany’s (52 and 42 gigawatts, respectively, excluding large hydropower). However, renewables represented only 8 percent of the total U.S. energy supply, and only  2.5 percent if hydropower is excluded. By contrast, Germany had a 10.3 percent share of renewable energy in its final gross energy consumption (including hydropower). And while the United States has few long-term federal renewables goals (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 contains several short-term targets), Germany aims to further boost its renewables share in its final gross energy consumption to 30 percent by 2030, and be 50 percent of its electricity generation within the same time period.

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energy, energy policy, energy security, feed-in tariffs, Germany, green jobs, lobbying, renewable energy, USA

Worldwatch Institute senior researcher Michael Renner recently posted a blog outlining the policy positions of two leading front men in the international climate negotiations: UK.. economist Lord Nicholas Stern and U.S. envoy Todd Stern.  Despite sharing the last name, the two men could not be more different. Michael’s article “A Tale of Two Sterns… But Only One Planet” summarizes clearly their opposing views.  Do these two men represent the greater the greater tensions between the global North and South? As we approach the final stretch before the COP 15 this December, the world community can only wait to see if the negotiators at Copenhagen will act as two or one.

Nicolas Stern, north-south divide, Todd Stern, USA