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The effect of global climate change, population distribution, and climate mitigation on building energy use in the U.S. and China

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Climate change will affect the energy system in a number of ways, one of which is through changes in demands for heating and cooling in buildings. Understanding the potential effect of climate change on heating and cooling demands requires taking into account not only the manner in which the building sector might evolve over time, but also important uncertainty about the nature of climate change itself. In this study, we explore the uncertainty in climate change impacts on heating and cooling requirement by constructing estimates of heating and cooling degree days (HDD/CDDs) for both reference (no-policy) and 550 ppmv CO2 concentration pathways built from three different Global Climate Models (GCMs) output and three scenarios of gridded population distribution. The implications that changing climate and population distribution might have for building energy consumption in the U.S. and China are then explored by using the results of HDD/CDDs as inputs to a detailed, building energy model, nested in the long-term global integrated assessment framework, Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM). The results across the modeled changes in climate and population distributions indicate that unabated climate change would cause building sector’s final energy consumption to decrease modestly (6 % decrease or less depending on climate models) in both the U.S. and China by the end of the century as decreased heating consumption more than offsets increased cooling using primarily electricity. However, global climate change virtually has negligible effect on total CO2 emissions in the buildings sector in both countries. The results also indicate more substantial implications for the fuel mix with increases in electricity and decreases in other fuels, which may be consistent with climate mitigation goals. The variation in results across all scenarios due to variation of population distribution is smaller than variation due to the use of different climate models.

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  1. Traditional energy refers to unsustainable use of wood, charcoal, agricultural residues, and animal dung for cooking and heating in the residential sector (Edenhofer et al. 2011). Its typical conversion efficiency is substantially lower than other commercial fuels.

  2. A similar trend was observed when we compare cumulative heating and cooling energy demands through 2050, a time horizon that policy makers might have on their agenda, although the net impact is smaller than the century-long cumulative value.

  3. Abated climate change (550 ppmv) decreases cumulative direct CO2 emissions (2005–2095) by 2–3 %, compared to the effect of full climate change of around 11 % in both countries. The numbers become much smaller in terms of cumulative total emissions.


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The authors are grateful for research support provided by Environmental Protection Agency, the Global Technology Strategy Project, and the Integrated Assessment Research Program in the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy for funding this research. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is operated for DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute under contract DE‐AC05‐76RL01830. The authors would like to thank James J. Dooley and three anonymous reviewers for constructive comments and the many colleagues and organizations that shared data used in this project. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone.

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Correspondence to Yuyu Zhou.

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Zhou, Y., Eom, J. & Clarke, L. The effect of global climate change, population distribution, and climate mitigation on building energy use in the U.S. and China. Climatic Change 119, 979–992 (2013).

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