Review Article | Published:

Energy savings, emission reductions, and health co-benefits of the green building movement

Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology (2018) | Download Citation



Buildings consume nearly 40% of primary energy production globally. Certified green buildings substantially reduce energy consumption on a per square foot basis and they also focus on indoor environmental quality. However, the co-benefits to health through reductions in energy and concomitant reductions in air pollution have not been examined.We calculated year by year LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification rates in six countries (the United States, China, India, Brazil, Germany, and Turkey) and then used data from the Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG) to estimate energy savings in each country each year. Of the green building rating schemes, LEED accounts for 32% of green-certified floor space and publically reports energy efficiency data. We employed Harvard’s Co-BE Calculator to determine pollutant emissions reductions by country accounting for transient energy mixes and baseline energy use intensities. Co-BE applies the social cost of carbon and the social cost of atmospheric release to translate these reductions into health benefits. Based on modeled energy use, LEED-certified buildings saved $7.5B in energy costs and averted 33MT of CO2, 51 kt of SO2, 38 kt of NOx, and 10 kt of PM2.5 from entering the atmosphere, which amounts to $5.8B (lower limit = $2.3B, upper limit = $9.1B) in climate and health co-benefits from 2000 to 2016 in the six countries investigated. The U.S. health benefits derive from avoiding an estimated 172–405 premature deaths, 171 hospital admissions, 11,000 asthma exacerbations, 54,000 respiratory symptoms, 21,000 lost days of work, and 16,000 lost days of school. Because the climate and health benefits are nearly equivalent to the energy savings for green buildings in the United States, and up to 10 times higher in developing countries, they provide an important and previously unquantified societal value. Future analyses should consider these co-benefits when weighing policy decisions around energy-efficient buildings.

  • Subscribe to Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    Lelieveld J, Evans JS, Fnais M, Giannadaki D, Pozzer A. The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale. Nature 2015;525:367–71.

  2. 2.

    Ürge-Vorsatz D, Cabeza LF, Serrano S, Barreneche C, Petrichenko K. Heating and cooling energy trends and drivers in buildings. Renew Sustain Energy Rev 2015;41:85–98.

  3. 3.

    Lockwood JG, Gregory S, Scorer RS. Climate change: the IPCC scientific assessment. Report prepared by Working Group I. In: Houghton JT, Jenkins GJ, Ephraums JJ, editors. Intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1990. pp. 365 + xxxix.

  4. 4.

    USGBC. USGBC statistics. 2016;

  5. 5.

    China 3 Star. Standard by People’s Republic of China Evaluation Standard for Green Buildings. C. Star; 2006.

  6. 6.

    World GBC. Green building rating tools. 2016. Accessed 5 Feb 2017.

  7. 7.

    Allen JG, MacNaughton P, Santanam S, Satish U, and Spengler J. Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers: a controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments. Environ Health Perspect. 2015;123:805–12.

  8. 8.

    Colton M, Laurent JG, MacNaughton P, Kane J, Bennett-Fripp M, Spengler J, et al. Health benefits of green public housing: associations with asthma morbidity and building-related symptoms. 2015; 105(12):2482–9.

  9. 9.

    Thiel CL, Needy KL, Ries R, Hupp D, Bilec MM. Building design and performance: a comparative longitudinal assessment of a children’s hospital. Build Environ 2014;78:130–6.

  10. 10.

    MacNaughton P, Satish U, Laurent JGC, Flanigan S, Vallarino J, Coull B, et al. The impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health. Build Environ. 2016;114:178–86.

  11. 11.

    Wargocki P, Wyon D, Sundell J, Clausen G, Fanger PO. The effects of outdoor air supply rate in an office on perceived air quality, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms and productivity. Indoor Air 2000;10:222–36.

  12. 12.

    Buonocore JJ, Luckow P, Norris G, Spengler JD, Biewald B, Fisher J, et al. Health and climate benefits of different energy-efficiency and renewable energy choices. Nat Clim Change 2016;6:100–5.

  13. 13.

    EIA. Select results from the energy assessor experiment in the 2012 commercial buildings energy consumption survey. U.S.E.I. Administration; 2017.

  14. 14.

    McCadden, L. USGBC announces international ranking of top 10 countries for LEED. U.S.G.B. Council; 2016.

  15. 15.

    IEA. Building energy performance metrics: supporting energy efficiency progress in major economies. I.E. Administration; 2015.

  16. 16.

    IEA. IEA world energy statistics and balances. I.E. Administration; 2017.  ​

  17. 17.

    IEA. Energy prices in US dollars. I.E. Administration; 2017.  ​

  18. 18.

    Ovo Energy. Average electricity prices around the world: $/kWh. O. Energy; 2017.

  19. 19.

    IGU. Wholesale gas price survey. I.G. Union; 2016.

  20. 20.

    Zhang D, Paltsev S. The future of natural gas in China: effects of pricing reform and climate policy. MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; 2016.

  21. 21.

    OECD. OECD.Stat; 2017.

  22. 22.

    Aden N, Fridley D, Zheng N. China’s coal: demand, constraints, and externalities. Environmental Energy Technologies Division, Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; 2009.

  23. 23.

    GBIG. Green Building Information Gateway. United States Green Building Council; 2017.

  24. 24.

    Turner C, Frankel M. Energy performance of LEED® for new construction buildings. New Building Institute; 2008.

  25. 25.

    EIA. How much energy is consumed in residential and commercial buildings in the United States? U.S. Energy Information Administration; 2015.

  26. 26.

    BLS. CPI databases. Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2017.

  27. 27.

    EPA. Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; 2017.

  28. 28.

    EPA. Welcome to WebFIRE. Environmental Protection Agency; 2017.

  29. 29.

    EPA. Emission factors for greenhouse gas inventories. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center for Corporate Climate Leadership; 2016.

  30. 30.

    EIA. Petroleum & other liquids. U.S. Energy Information Administration; 2017.

  31. 31.

    IEA. IEA CO2 emissions from fuel combustion statistics. International Energy Administration: OECD iLibrary; 2017. ​

  32. 32.

    EU. Global emissions. European Commission; 2014.

  33. 33.

    EU. Global emissions. European Commission; 2016.

  34. 34.

    IPCC. Emission factor database. IPCC Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories; 1996.

  35. 35.

    EPA. Regulatory impact analysis for the final mercury and air toxics standards. Environmental Protection Agency; 2011.

  36. 36.

    EPA. Regulatory impact analysis for the proposed federal plan requirements for greenhouse gas emissions from electric utility generating units constructed on or before January 8, 2014; Model Trading Rules; Amendments to Framework Regulations. Environmental Protection Agency; 2015.

  37. 37.

    EPA. Regulatory impact analysis for the clean power plan final rule. Environmental Protection Agency; 2015.

  38. 38.

    Dockins C, Maguire K, Simon N, Sullivan M. Value of statistical life analysis and environmental policy: a white paper. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; 2004.!OpenDocument.

  39. 39.

    Pope CA 3rd, Burnett R, Thun MJ, Calle EE, Krewski D, Ito K, et al. Lung cancer, cardiopulmonary mortality, and long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution. J Am Med Assoc 2002;287:1132–41.

  40. 40.

    Laden F, Schwartz J, Speizer FE, Dockery DW. Reduction in fine particulate air pollution and mortality: extended follow-up of the harvard six cities study. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2006;173:667–72.

  41. 41.

    Brook RD, Rajagopalan S, Pope CA, Brook JR, Bhatnagar A, Diez-Roux AV, et al. Particulate matter air pollution and cardiovascular disease: an update to the scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2010;121(21):2331–78.

  42. 42.

    Shindell DT. The social cost of atmospheric release. Clim Change 2015;130:313–26.

  43. 43.

    EPA. The social cost of carbon: estimating the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental Protection Agency; 2016.

  44. 44.

    EPA. Greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; 2017.

  45. 45.

    Bell ML, McDermott A, Zeger SL, Samet JM, Dominici F. Ozone and short-term mortality in 95 US urban communities, 1987–2000. JAMA 2004;292(19):2372–8.

  46. 46.

    Levy JI, Chemerynski SM, Sarnat JA. Ozone exposure and mortality: “an empiric bayes metaregression analysis”. Epidemiology 2005;16:458–68.

  47. 47.

    Krewski D, Jerrett M, Burnett RT, Ma R, Hughes E, Shi Y, et al. Extended follow-up and spatial analysis of the American Cancer Society study linking particulate air pollution and mortality. 2009 (1041-5505 (Print)). Res Rep Health Eff Inst. 2009 May;(140):5-114; discussion 115-36.

  48. 48.

    Lepeule J, Laden F, Dockery D, Schwartz J. Chronic exposure to fine particles and mortality: an extended follow-up of the harvard six cities study from 1974 to 2009. Environ Health Perspect 2012;120:965–70.

  49. 49.

    Peters A, Dockery D, Muller JE, Mittleman MA. Increased particulate air pollution and the triggering of myocardial infarction. Circulation 2001;103:2810–15

  50. 50.

    GSA. LEED cost study—final report, I. Steven Winter Associates, U.S. General Services Administration; 2004.

  51. 51.

    DoE. Utilizing commercial real estate owner and investor data to analyze the financial performance of energy efficient, high performance office buildings. U.S. Department of Energy; 2017.

  52. 52.

    Cao X, Dai X, Liu J. Building energy-consumption status worldwide and the state-of-the-art technologies for zero-energy buildings during the past decade. Energy Build 2016;128:198–213.

  53. 53.

    MacNaughton P, Pegues J, Satish U, Santanam S, Spengler JD, Allen J. Economic, environmental and health implications of enhanced ventilation in office buildings. Int J Environ Res Publ Health. 2015;12(11):14709–22.

  54. 54.

    Newsham GR, Mancini S, Birt BJ. Do LEED-certified buildings save energy? Yes, but…. Energy Build 2009;41:897–905.

  55. 55.

    Scofield JH. Do LEED-certified buildings save energy? Not really…. Energy Build 2009;41:1386–90.

  56. 56.

    Moore FC, Diaz DB. Temperature impacts on economic growth warrant stringent mitigation policy. Nat Clim Change 2015;5:127–31.

  57. 57.

    Rockström J, Gaffney O, Rogelj J, Meinshausen M, Nakicenovic N, Schellnhuber HJ. A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science 2017;355:1269.

Download references


This research was supported by a gift from United Technologies to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. United Technologies was not involved in the data collection, analysis, or interpretation.

Author contributions

PM, XC, JB contributed to the methodological approach, statistical analyses, and drafting the manuscript. JS, AB, JCL participated in interpretation of data and helped to draft the manuscript. JA conceived and designed the study, and contributed to interpretation of data and drafting the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Author information


  1. Environmental Health Department, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

    • MacNaughton P.
    • , Cao X.
    • , Buonocore J.
    • , Cedeno-Laurent J.
    • , Bernstein A.
    •  & Allen J.


  1. Search for MacNaughton P. in:

  2. Search for Cao X. in:

  3. Search for Buonocore J. in:

  4. Search for Cedeno-Laurent J. in:

  5. Search for Spengler J. in:

  6. Search for Bernstein A. in:

  7. Search for Allen J. in:

Conflict of interest

Dr. Bernstein reports he serves pro bono on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Green Building Council. The remaining authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Allen J..

Electronic supplementary material

About this article

Publication history





Rights and permissions

To obtain permission to re-use content from this article visit RightsLink.