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White House Signs Up for White Roofs

• July 23, 2010 • 3:43 PM

The U.S. government opts takes an easy step toward reducing — in a small way — global warming and energy use.

Back in spring 2009, Miller-McCune reported — in two separate articles (here and here)—on the impressive virtues of “cool roofs” in the fight against climate change. Simply by painting urban surfaces white or a light color, we noted, “the carbon emissions of all 600 million of the world’s cars could be off-set for 18 to 20 years — at a savings equivalent to at least $1 trillion worth of CO2 reductions.”

At the time, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the Bay Area were lobbying the Obama administration to embrace the “cool roofs strategy” as a means of reducing nation’s energy usage while simultaneously increasing the Earth’s “albedo” — the degree to which it reflects solar radiation.

Earlier this week the White House acknowledged their entreaties, announcing that it will push to install cool roofs on the Department of Energy and other federal buildings. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu put it, “Cool roofs are one of the quickest and lowest-cost ways we can reduce our global carbon emissions and begin the hard work of slowing climate change.”

According to researchers at the LBNL, cool roofs can reduce the need for air conditioning in buildings by up to 52 percent. Perhaps even more impressive, they could potentially offset two years of global greenhouse gas emissions by reflecting the heat of the sun back into space — a tool to “geo-engineer” the atmosphere.

As climate change intensifies and heat-reflecting ice in the polar regions melts and disappears, scientists believe that the reduction of the Earth’s albedo could have potentially catastrophic consequences. But according to the LBNL, if enough dark surfaces in the world are repainted white or light colors, thereby bouncing solar radiation back into space, up to two years of worldwide carbon emissions could be offset.

The cool roofs initiative is part of a broader commitment by the Obama administration to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the federal government by 28 percent by 2020. Its inclusion makes excellent sense.

In one of our original articles on cool roofs, we quoted the late Stephen Schneider, who said that as singular greenhouse mitigation strategies come, it is elegant, simple and profoundly cheap. “It’s a clever idea that has no obvious side effects and gives us good bang for our buck.”

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Sam Kornell
Sam Kornell is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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