Ben Lieberman: There's a new addition to the list of enemies of the planet — buildings (yes, buildings!)

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Environmentalists and their friends in Congress dislike an ever-expanding list of materials and industries American families rely on, from fossil fuels to vehicles to logging, farming and ranching. Now it seems there’s a new addition to the list of enemies of the planet: buildings.

This year’s Green New Deal from House and Senate Democrats finds fault with every building in America and sets an astonishing goal of “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability.” Several other bills would throw billions of tax dollars at installing insulation and energy-saving gadgets in both government and private buildings and boosting the use of solar panels and other renewables.

In theory, it sounds like more efficient buildings reduce both energy bills and energy-related emissions – a win-win for the economy and the environment. In reality, though, most energy saving measures that make economic sense are already undertaken by builders and property owners without government intervention.

In fact, government interference has not gone well so far. Since the 1970s, the federal government supported all sorts of incentives to make energy efficient improvements in buildings. That’s done more to transfer tax dollars from hardworking Americans to big insulation manufacturers, for example than it has to produce energy savings.

Consider that federal programs incentivizing weatherization of homes costs twice as much as the energy saved, according to a 2015 study by three university economists. Over the long run, this kind of government mandate forges unholy alliances between corporate welfare beneficiaries and environmental activists, which spawns another powerful lobbying block in Washington.

Perversely, the zealous push for energy efficiency may have had an adverse impact on indoor air quality by forcing buildings to be more airtight. And most office workers know that the days of being able to open a window are long gone.

Meanwhile, the cost imposed on households and businesses is all too real. Consider that energy efficiency in buildings is heavily regulated for heating and air conditioning equipment, water heaters, lighting – even illuminated EXIT signs. Even the U.S. Energy Department admits that regulations may raise the cost of equipment more than what gets earned back in energy savings.

Air conditioners are a prime example. Many are already subject to costly efficiency standards, and on top of that, regulators keep finding fault with the refrigerants used.

First, the class of chemicals known as Freon was banned on the grounds that they depleted the Earth’s ozone layer, a layer high in the earth's stratosphere that contains a high concentration of ozone and absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation that bombards the earth.

Now, the supposedly earth-friendly replacements are under attack for exacerbating climate change. Not surprisingly, some chemical companies have patented substitute refrigerants that would mean another step up in price, and they are pushing Congress for legislation to favor them.

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For everyone who owns or rents commercial space, the cost of those regulations adds up, big time. Before the government started regulating refrigerants, the ones commonly used in building air conditioners cost around a dollar a pound. Today, some cost ten times that, and, depending on the size of a building, might require tens or even hundreds of pounds.

Congress is terrible at turning energy efficiency policies into a cost-effective reality. It’s time to stop letting them try.

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