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Pittsburgh's green building initiative shifts focus to help meet global carbon goals by 2040

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh’s effort to get property owners to commit to greener materials and lower energy use is now changing its priority to more aggressively cutting carbon emissions. The shift comes after emerging climate science has emphasized the need for countries to reach zero carbon emissions by 2040 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

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The Pittsburgh 2030 District is an initiative of the Green Building Alliance comprised of 130 property owners in various sectors. It includes buildings in downtown, Oakland and the North Side. Office towers, hospitals, hotels, multifamily residential buildings, universities, professional sports facilities and museums make up some of the 560 buildings whose owners have committed to the goals of the 2030 District.

The initiative’s original goal set a 2030 target date to cut energy use and water consumption in existing buildings by 50% and have new construction and major renovation projects be carbon neutral. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Glasgow last year stressed the need to cut down emissions more and faster.

Climate scientists are now urging countries to reduce carbon emissions in existing buildings by 50-65% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality 10 years later. Pittsburgh’s 2030 District has adjusted its goals to try to meet that.

“The climate science is constantly being reevaluated,” said Chris Cieslak, who manages the Pittsburgh and Erie 2030 Districts for the Green Building Alliance. “That was a significant departure from our prior goal setting.”

A map of the 560 buildings committed to the Pittsburgh 2030 District.
Green Building Alliance
Pittsburgh 2030 District
A map of the 560 buildings committed to the Pittsburgh 2030 District.

In the Pittsburgh 2030 District’s newest annual report, the initiative will now focus on cutting carbon, in addition to reducing water and energy use. The new approach could come with new costs for building owners to retrofit their facilities to meet benchmarks.

“Accelerating to zero carbon will require changes that include migrating to full building electrification, increasing renewable energy, and advocating for more stringent building codes and energy-related policies and incentives,” said Cieslak.

The 2021 report lays out how far partners have come in decreasing their footprint. Energy use has been reduced by 34.9% below the baseline set in 2003; compared to 28.9% in 2020. Water consumption is down by 37.1% below the baseline set in 2012.

But according to Cieslak, that progress needs to be ramped up to get closer to the initiative’s goals. “I would not say with any certainty that we’re going to meet our objectives,” she said. “I’m saying we have a long road ahead, but we have the tools that we need to get there.”

The initiative will hold educational meetings with partners to help them reduce their carbon use. Carbon reduction might become more difficult as building owners have to think harder about how to continue building on the progress already made, according to Cieslak.

“Obviously, the first few years were the low-hanging fruit for energy efficiency,” she said. “So we need to start thinking about deeper carbon retrofits to really start to tackle the carbon emissions that come out of our buildings.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said in a statement that he’s looking forward to having actionable items that will bring a lasting positive impact on climate. He also stressed the uneven impact the climate crisis has had on disadvantaged communities.

“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time,” said Gainey. “This crisis disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities and if we are going to become the safest city in America [then] we must create healthy environments for everyone. As the largest 2030 district in the country, I’m proud of the work that Pittsburgh is doing to lead on this issue and I look forward to having real actionable items that will have a lasting and positive impact on the lives and well-being of all of us.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.