Is White the New Green? A Reflection on Roofs and Climate Change

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The idea of cool roofs and cool pavement bouncing more of the sun’s heat back into space has been around for years. It has long been known that white roofs in Greece and Spain keep buildings cooler –and help counteract against the urban heat island effect. This can be seen both in the design of houses and public spaces such as Park Guell in Barcelona or Syntagma Square in Athens. 

Until now, nobody has tried to quantify how much atmospheric cooling could be achieved. Back in 2004, three California energy experts started to run the numbers. At first they could not believe their eyes – they checked them again and ran them in different ways with unambiguous results.

Every 100 square feet of roof area turned from a dark color to white is equivalent to offsetting the emission of one ton of heat-trapping, atmospheric CO2.

The study in the Climatic Change journal makes a convincing case. Scientists claim that painting urban surfaces in warm parts of the world white or a light color could offset the carbon emissions of all 600 million of the world’s cars for 18 to 20 years – at a savings equivalent to at least $1 trillion worth of CO2 reductions.

Some would like to see part of the economic stimulus package directed toward painting white or a light color as many of the nation’s roofs, and as much of its pavement, as possible – all with the goal of directing more solar radiation into space.

It must be emphasized that this plan would offset, not eliminate, the necessity of reducing carbon emissions. But as singular greenhouse mitigation strategies go – the study suggests that this strategy is elegant, simple and profoundly cheap. Not to mention job creation.

A trade job for a traditional roofer and a roofer installing solar panels or solar shingles, differ only in specialized knowledge and skills. However, in terms of training and wages, the two are virtually equal from a business aspect.

Diversity is key in any trade. As traditional roofing schemes of asphalt give way to greener alternatives, it is logical to say that one side would be shrinking. One day a roofer will be working on a shingle roof in Littleton, CO. Then the next day or two, they will be doing a solar panel retrofit up the street in Boulder, CO.

It is not just the high tech solar technologies that a roofing company can expect job growth. Technologies such as cool roofs and green roofs are making their marks.

The potential growth in green job sectors could likely be stunted by any declining labor shortage within these industries, in terms of both quantity and quality of available workers. The lack of a skilled workforce is the largest non-technical barrier to the advancement of green building technologies.

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