Builders Association Attack Against California Setting New Carbon Pollution Targets Is Wrong on the Facts and the Law

Co-authored by Alex Jackson and David Pettit

The California Building Industry Association (CBIA) issued a report this week warning that the state's effort to establish new carbon pollution reduction targets would lead to dramatic increases in construction costs and a decline in construction activity through a "de facto" mandate that all new construction in California must meet a zero net energy (ZNE) standard immediately.

But the notion that Senate Bill 32 (Pavley), which would establish the new carbon reduction targets, would result in an overnight ZNE mandate is simply not true. And the notion that driving greater efficiency in our buildings will effectively cripple the California economy is nothing more than a scare tactic.

As Senator Pavley told the Sacramento Business Journal, we've heard this type of doomsday prophesizing before, and the sky hasn't fallen.

What would SB 32 do?

SB 32 builds on the foundation established by California's landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32), which set a statewide carbon pollution reduction target of returning to 1990 levels by 2020. Through Executive Orders, California has set additional reduction targets of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, consistent with the level of reductions scientists warn will be required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. SB 32 would codify these targets, with direction to the Air Resources Board to continue the collaborative interagency planning process under the rubric of the Scoping Plan (which lays out how AB 32 is implemented) to achieve them in the most cost-effective manner.

Accordingly, like AB 32, SB 32 would not set any specific mandates for the building industry (or any other industry for that matter), but rather sets an overall economy-wide carbon pollution reduction target for California to achieve through a variety of measures and programs.

So what's the fuss about?

CBIA claims that affirming the new targets in statute would result in a de facto mandate for zero net energy buildings, effective immediately, because it would give license to opponents of new construction to argue under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that all new buildings must meet ZNE standards to be consistent with state law. But SB 32 does not change state law about CEQA thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions from new construction projects; nor does it add any new GHG mitigation requirements applicable to such projects. And nothing in the bill says that all new construction must meet ZNE standards now in order to meet the bill's 2050 goals.

A history of success

While SB 32 would not require every new building to meet the statewide reduction targets the bill would establish, CBIA is right that highly energy efficient, low-emissions buildings are going to be a key part of meeting those long-term goals. And that's a good thing: improving the energy efficiency of our buildings is one of the lowest-cost strategies we have to fight climate change. Nationally, buildings - and the equipment inside them - contribute 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting the amount of energy they waste reduces the need to use fossil-fired power plants to generate the electricity flowing to those structures.

It also means big savings on our energy bills. The California Energy Commission's energy efficiency building codes and appliance standards, alone, have saved Californians more than $74 billion in reduced electricity bills since 1977. The success of these standards is a major reason why California's per capita electricity use has remained flat over the last 40 years while the rest of the country's use continues to rise, and why we have the fourth-lowest residential energy bills in the country.

More efficient buildings ahead

And we're poised to continue that progress. California has longstanding goals in place today that all new residential construction be zero net energy by 2020 and new commercial construction by 2030. Significant work is already underway to help California achieve these targets. For instance, the California Advanced Home Program has provided incentives for highly efficient new residential construction for several years and provides extra incentives for homes with features likely needed to reach net zero, like more efficient walls and duct systems.

This past June, the Energy Commission adopted an updated Title 24 building code that will go into effect in 2017 that takes a big step forward toward reaching the zero net energy target for residential construction in 2020. The CEC is required to set standards that are cost-effective - that is, save more energy over the life of the building than the additional efficiency measures cost up front. The 2017 standards will do just that, cutting energy use in homes by 28 percent - through improvements to wall and attic insulation, lighting, and other measures - and netting $4,700 in bill savings over a 30-year mortgage.

Also earlier this summer, the California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission jointly released a New Residential Zero Net Energy Action Plan that outlines the path to reach ZNE by 2020.

These are just a few of the steps California is already taking to ensure that new construction and major renovations in California meet the highest levels of efficiency that are cost-effective and have their energy supplied increasingly by clean sources, like wind and solar. That's good news for Californians who will see the benefits of reduced energy bills and pollution. And it's good news for California's economy as less money spent on energy bills means more is available for other goods and services.

So while SB 32 would not result in an overnight ZNE mandate, the work already underway to move our building stock toward greater efficiency will be an important piece of meeting the future climate pollution targets that SB 32 affirms.

There's certainly nothing doomsday about that.