The Clean Energy Economy: Ensuring a Just Transition

Rebecca L. Lucore
5 min readNov 14, 2022

It’s happening. The signs are everywhere.

In the news, there’s word that a growing number of automakers are introducing new lines of electric vehicles. At convenience stores, rows of electric charging stations are popping up. On hilltops, wind turbines move gracefully. And on residential rooftops, solar panels replace asphalt shingles.

The transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy is all around. Still, there is much work to do. Accelerating the transition requires work on so many fronts and in so many sectors.

One sector that presents enormous opportunities for decarbonization is the built environment.

Our homes, the office complexes, stores, restaurants and manufacturing plants we work in, our vehicles, the roads, bridges and tunnels they travel over and the electricity and water systems that deliver vital services to us: they all require enormous amounts of energy and materials to build and maintain. Often, energy derived from, and materials manufactured using fossil fuels.

It’s no wonder that the building and construction sector uses 50 percent of all extracted materials and is responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings alone consume 36 percent of energy usage.

As the world works to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, it’s critical that we address decarbonization of the built environment. It’s especially urgent considering that between now and 2060 the world’s population will double the amount of building floor-space, which is equivalent to building an entire New York City every month for 40 years, according to Architecture 2030.

Getting a handle on this and other built environment decarbonization issues was the focus of a recent workshop co-hosted by Covestro and Pittsburgh-based Green Building Alliance (GBA) — two organizations with considerable skin in the game.

As Pittsburgh’s leading authority on green building, GBA oversees the country’s largest 2030 District and has been championing cutting edge research and equipping designers, manufacturers, developers and policymakers with the tools they need to drive systemic change around constructing and operating the most advanced, energy efficient buildings in the world.

Covestro, one of the world’s largest polymer companies, is committed to becoming operationally climate neutral by 2035 and a Circular Economy (CE) company in the long term. It is using a mix of CE principles, alternative raw materials and renewable energy to produce a portfolio of climate neutral products for the construction industry.

With clean energy ministers, experts and advocates from across the globe convening in Pittsburgh recently for the Global Clean Energy Action Forum, we thought it an opportune moment to invite them to share strategies and solutions for getting to zero or near zero emissions in the built environment.

The topics were wide-ranging. Everything from mitigating methane and embodied carbon and implementing sustainable cooling and appropriate building and energy codes, to understanding Beneficial Electrification and developing financing tools to drive the clean energy transition.

Interestingly, despite the particular topic at hand, the one resounding message was this: the clean energy transition and built environment decarbonization must be just and place people at its center.

Why?

Because it involves a uniquely human element that impacts so many people’s lives and livelihoods. So, as we work to revitalize our communities and shift them to clean energy– whether they are in rural areas whose economies traditionally have depended on coal mining or other extractive industries, or urban inner cities that have long been subjected to disinvestment and the burden of energy costs and inefficient practices — we must understand and value the experiences of the people who live in those places and ensure they have an integral role in the new low-carbon economy.

Coal country, for example, has entire cultures infused with their own traditions, histories and pride in their way of life. They should be proud. Their hard work built this country, fueling its post-World War II emergence as a world power. We shouldn’t forget that.

Nor should we forget the people whose neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by greenhouse gas emissions, or those who have been shut out of energy and building and construction industries for far too long. In this case, people of color and women have an important role to play.

Unfortunately, there is no codified, simple way to make the transition. But our experts did share a number of important ingredients of a still developing recipe.

Building the human infrastructure to support the new clean energy infrastructure is one of them. After all, how can we build high performing buildings without building high performing people? That’s the goal of the Pittsburgh Scholar House and precisely what Coalfield Development and its Appalachian Climate Technology or ACT Coalition are focused on. The recipient of a recent $62.8 million Build Back Better grant, the ACT Coalition is creating a hub of clean energy and green economy jobs in the heart of coal country.

In rebuilding the Appalachian economy from the ground up, the ACT Coalition is creating various enterprises like solar and green building that all have one thing in common — the 33–6–3 model. That means 33 hours of paid work, six hours of higher education and working toward and degree, and three hours of personal development which is designed to deal with mental and physical well-being and the trauma experienced by people who have lost their agency as their communities have crumbled.

Bringing those most affected to the table and really listening to them is another key factor. What exactly do they need? How can we give it to them? It’s not just workers. These stakeholders also include the business owners, such as mine owners, who stand to lose something in the shift. We must give them something, too. And, not just stakeholders from one community. The effort must be region-wide since so many surrounding areas are impacted by changes made, for example, in one local coal community.

Then once we bring the stakeholders together, we must ensure they continue communicating in meaningful ways.

And, as always, when we talk about creating sustainable communities, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) provide an important guidepost. With their emphasis on balancing economic, environmental and social equity, they can help train our eye on the ball. At Covestro, we can speak with some authority on this. As an early adopter of the UN SDGs when they were first launched in 2015, we have put them at the center of our business and innovation strategy. In fact, we’ve tied 80 percent of all our R&D to them, balancing people, planet and profit.

Similarly, keeping the Global Goals top of mind as we decarbonize the built environment in local communities, whether rural, urban or suburban, will ensure the shift is just and inclusive.

Because it is happening. The shift is underway. The signs are all around.

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Rebecca L. Lucore

Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility for Covestro LLC in North America