Blame the landlord: United States could easily cut 28 percent of greenhouse gases, but probably won’t.

Today’s NY Times writes about a study that says the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gases by around 28 percent with widely available technology at a reasonable cost. Even better, we’d all save money over time by doing it!

A large share of the reductions could come from steps that would more than pay for themselves in lower energy bills for industries and individual consumers, the report said, adding that people should take those steps out of good sense regardless of how worried they might be about climate change. But that is unlikely to happen under present circumstances, said the authors, who are energy experts at McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm.

The report said the country was brimming with “negative cost opportunities” — potential changes in the lighting, heating and cooling of buildings, for example, that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels even as they save money. “These types of savings have been around for 20 years,” said Jack Stephenson, a director of the study. But he said they still face tremendous barriers.

Among them is that equipment is often paid for by a landlord or a builder and chosen for its low initial cost. The cost of electricity or other fuels to operate the equipment is borne by a tenant or home buyer. That means the landlord or builder has no incentive to spend more upfront for efficient equipment, even though doing so would save a lot of money in the long run.

Another problem, the report said, is that consumers often pay no attention to energy use in choosing gear. Computers, for instance, can be manufactured to use less power, but with most users oblivious to energy efficiency when they are shopping for a computer, manufacturers perceive no competitive edge in spending the extra money on efficiency.

I’d like to point out that it isn’t just landlords and builders who have this kind of short term thinking that only looks at initial costs and not long term operating costs. Anyone who has bought a new air conditioner or furnace has faced that exact issue. The much higher upfront cost for the most efficient unit might take 5 years or even longer to recoup. Most Americans don’t stay in one location for 5 years, so they’ll never see the payoff in hard dollars and cents.