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Chemistry’s Role in More Energy Efficient Buildings

Our daily life is filled with the routine tasks … answering a cell phone call, buckling a child into a safety seat, or flipping on a light switch. These modern-day safety and convenience improvements may be appreciated, but often with little thought into what makes it all possible. The same may be true with buildings we enter and exit each day that are becoming increasingly energy efficient, saving energy and money.

Remarkable innovations in chemistry are making significant contributions, such as certain conveniences that help make life more enjoyable, along with increased energy savings that make life more affordable. With these benefits, it is important to help raise awareness about the positive role chemistry plays behind the scenes, and the millions of dollars that are invested each year in research and development to bring even more innovative materials to market.

A leading focus of industry research today is the development of materials and technologies that empower Americans to save energy. Chemistry is helping Americans realize the benefits of more fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles. For example, chemistry-driven lithium-ion batteries help to power cars. Plastic auto parts, which make up 50 percent of the volume of today’s new cars, dramatically reduce vehicle weight to significantly improve gas mileage, while also serving to improve vehicle safety.

Chemistry research and innovation are also embedded in our residential and commercial buildings. As builders, architects, regulators and industry members strive to achieve a common goal of more energy efficient and sustainable buildings, chemistry plays an integral role. New innovations in our industry are helping buildings become more sustainable and energy efficient with reflective roofing, windows with engineered frames and glazing, air and water resistant building wraps, and solar solutions. There are also innovations that you don’t always see but are just as effective, like foam insulation.  According to a 2009 study in which McKinsey & Company did independent analysis, every unit of foam insulation used in a building saves a remarkable 233 units of greenhouse gas emissions.

As a member of the chemical industry, we are proud of this performance and of our broader role in the green building ecosystem.  We strongly support green building programs to achieve a sustainable future. In fact, a new report by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) showed that combining building efficiency improvements—made possible by innovations in chemistry—with lower-carbon fuels could lead to a 41 percent reduction in energy use and a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

At the same time, we recognize that the complexity surrounding chemistry materials can raise questions and uncertainty. That is why we want to be part of the green building standard development process – to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders and clarify any misunderstandings. Bringing to the conversation the leaders in the chemistry field and working in partnership with standards developers — including the U.S. Green Building Council and others — in truly open, balanced consensus-standard processes will help deliver the most energy-efficient, resource-efficient and healthy buildings.

Sustainability and life-cycle policy and standards impact very broad markets and complex industry sectors.  The cross section of markets, products, industry and sectors is far too sweeping for standards to be developed through a simplified approach of “good” and “bad” products. The safety and sustainability status of a product is determined by much more than its chemical make up. It is also determined by how and where a product is used and actual human and environmental exposure and its ability to perform. It only makes sense that the users and makers of building materials all have a seat at the table.

We welcome thoughtful discussions about the role of chemistry and strive to be part of the ongoing dialogue to develop a responsible approach to policies.  Through an inclusive process, we can strengthen confidence in green building standards and, with continued robust investment, make progress toward our shared health, safety and sustainability goals.

Jared O. Blum is president and chief executive officer of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association.

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