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The Understand Energy Learning Hub is a cross-campus effort of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Energy for Buildings

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Fast Facts About 
Buildings, Energy, and Decarbonization

Residential and commercial buildings are the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GHG emissions in buildings come mainly from the consumption of energy for heating, cooling, lighting, and operating various appliances, as well as from construction, materials, and maintenance.

Decarbonizing buildings is crucial in the efforts to mitigate climate change and achieve sustainable development. This requires a multi-faceted approach including:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Electrification
  • Increased use of renewable energy sources
  • Adoption of sustainable building practices
  • Supportive policies and regulations

In addition to reducing GHG emissions, decarbonizing buildings reduces energy consumption and improves health and indoor environmental quality.

Share of GHG Emissions from Buildings

World 37% 🌎 
U.S. 30% 🇺🇸 
of global GHG emissions come from buildings

Share of Final Energy Used by Buildings

World 33% 🌎 
U.S. 29% 🇺🇸 
of total final energy is used in buildings

Share of Energy Used in Buildings From Renewable Resources

World 16% 🌎 
U.S. 14% 🇺🇸 
of energy used in buildings comes from renewable resources


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45% of energy consumed in U.S. residential buildings is electricity

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60% of energy consumed in U.S. commercial buildings is electricity

Biggest Opportunities for Energy Efficiency and Decarbonization

  • Efficient building envelope (e.g., high performance windows - a home’s largest source of heat loss, insulation)
  • Lighting - use of natural light and LED lights
  • Improved HVAC systems and ductless heat pumps
  • Electrification of space heating and natural gas appliances (stoves, dryers, water heaters)

Effective Sustainable Building Design Practices

  • Integrative design - optimize whole systems rather than components in isolation
  • Application of energy efficiency best practices
  • Maximization of natural light and ventilation
  • Use of sustainably sourced natural materials
  • Reduction of friction in piping systems through size and layout to ensure smooth transitions
  • Optimal building orientation


  • Reduced costs for building operation and maintenance
  • Green buildings are more desirable from a leasing and selling perspective
  • Higher sales in retail with natural lighting and ventilation
  • Increased worker productivity
  • Better indoor environmental quality


  • Lack of mandatory energy efficient building standards or codes
  • Efficiency upgrades must be paid for up-front, and there may be a long cost recovery time
  • Upfront costs can be prohibitive if not applied correctly (i.e., optimizing in isolation as opposed to applying principles of integrative design)
  • “Split incentives” between those paying the costs of efficiency measures and those enjoying the savings (e.g., owner vs tenant)
  • Price distortions caused by fossil fuels subsidies
  • Low renovation and heating system replacement when existing building stocks are large
  • Low consumer awareness of efficiency and decarbonization options
  • Lack of skilled workforce in renewable heat and energy efficiency installation

Climate Impact: High

High gradient
  • Leading source of GHG emissions

Environmental Impact: High

High gradient


  • Land use
  • Mining for building materials
  • Noise pollution
  • Unsustainable wood harvesting
  • Potentially hazardous building materials
  • Construction debris


  • Air pollution
  • Waste
  • Water use

Updated June 2023

Before You Watch Our Lecture on
Buildings, Energy, and Decarbonization

We assign videos and readings to our Stanford students as pre-work for each lecture to help contextualize the lecture content. We strongly encourage you to review the Essential readings below before watching our lecture on Buildings, Energy, and Decarbonization. Include selections from the Optional and Useful list based on your interests and available time. 


Optional and Useful

Our Lecture on
Buildings, Energy, and Decarbonization

This is our Stanford University Understand Energy course lecture on buildings, energy, and decarbonization. We strongly encourage you to watch the full lecture to understand the importance of decarbonizing buildings and to be able to put this complex topic into context. For a complete learning experience, we also encourage you to review the Essential readings we assign to our students before watching the lecture.

Peter Rumsey

Presented by: Peter Rumsey, PE, FASHRAE, LEED AP; CEO and Founder, Point Energy Innovations
Recorded on: November 15, 2023   Duration: 60 minutes

Table of Contents

(Clicking on a timestamp will take you to YouTube.)
00:00 Introduction 
08:47 How Energy Is Used in Buildings 
12:25 Embodied Decarbonization 
16:15 Operational Decarbonization 
17:12 -Efficiency 
36:40 -Electrification 
45:34 - Renewable Energy 
50:21 Barriers to Decarbonization 
55:46 Case Studies

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Additional Resources About
Buildings, Energy, and Decarbonization

Stanford University

Government and International Organizations