National Momentum for Equitable Building Decarbonization

Part of NRDC’s Year-End Series Reviewing 2020 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

In the midst of an unprecedented public health emergency with vastly inequitable impacts across racial and economic lines, 2020 was the year many truly understood the need to make racial and economic justice central to how we fight against the climate crisis with community partners, including reducing the carbon emissions from our buildings. This renewed focus helped strengthen the value of the many wins we celebrated across the country. There is still much to be done to make America’s buildings healthier, cleaner, more affordable for all and to reduce their climate impact, but the momentum in many states is encouraging and we look forward to continuing progress in 2021.

MidPen's first all-electric affordable housing project with David Baker Architects: Edwina Benner Plaza in Sunnyvale, California.

Keith Baker

Local leadership continued to be a driving force for building clean from the start, spreading from California, where the movement started in 2019, to other states across the country. To date, 40 California municipalities have adopted ordinances encouraging or requiring electric appliances and equipment in new buildings, two Massachusetts towns have requested formal authority from the state to prohibit new fossil (aka “natural”) gas hook-ups, and Seattle’s mayor announced electrification requirements for new commercial and multifamily buildings.

Cities also took a stronger role in addressing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in existing buildings, with St. Louis joining Washington D.C., New York City, and Washington state in adopting  a Building Performance Standard (BPS). BPSs require buildings within a city to meet a certain energy savings or emission reduction target that strengthens over time.

This momentum will continue into next year, and we must do better to ensure the transition from gas to electricity prioritizes lower-income people and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities that currently bear disproportionately higher energy and pollution burdens. Cost savings and other benefits of moving to healthier all-electric buildings must accrue to overburdened community members To that end, we will work alongside our partners to support the priorities identified by the communities they represent. This will include affordability and anti-displacement provisions in building energy ordinances so that families are not priced out of their communities as we upgrade and electrify buildings.

We will also continue to learn from our local partners about how else we can support impacted communities having agency over the decisions that impact them the most, as we did this year with Greenlining Institute and the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) on their campaign for equitable building decarbonization in California.

The Health Impacts of Burning Gas in Buildings Rise to the Forefront

The climate impacts of fossil fuels use—such as gas, propane, and oil—in buildings are large and well-documented, but in 2020 it became clear that burning those fossil fuels in our homes in appliances like stoves, furnaces, and water heaters can also have important consequences for our health. Several new academic reports shed light on the health risks associated with gas appliances in homes, especially when we use them for cooking. A comprehensive review found that children living in a home with gas cooking had, on average, a 42% increased risk of experiencing asthma symptoms. This health burden—like many others—will fall heaviest on the BIPOC residents who already are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions, live in areas with poor outdoor air quality, and receive inferior medical care. This highlights the critical need to integrate health and equity in the built environment, as outlined in the World Green Building Council’s Health & Wellbeing Framework.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB), the agency responsible for enforcing federal air quality standards in California and the state’s greenhouse gas emissions goals, has been leading the nation on vehicle efficiency and emissions standards, and is now increasing its attention to the building sector. CARB recently passed a resolution calling for new building standards that require better ventilation of gas appliances, encourage electric appliances—developing new rules to reduce nitrogen oxides and other harmful emissions from gas appliances—and expanded efforts to improve health within disadvantaged communities.

Four States Considering a Managed Transition Away from the Gas System

An NRDC issue brief published this year clarified the limits of using biogas (marketed as “renewable natural gas” by industry) to decarbonize the nation’s many uses of fossil gas. The technical and economic limits of biogas further clarify that switching to clean electricity—rather than using existing pipes to transport insufficient amounts of biogas—is the most feasible and economical way to phase down the GHG emissions from our energy use in buildings. This became increasingly clear to policy makers in many states in 2020, and with that understanding came the realization that we must shrink our current gas system as we work to meet our climate goals.

Planning for an orderly and equitable transition away from the fossil gas system is the necessary next step: It will allow us to adequately provide economic and career pathways for gas workers as well as affordability and stability during the transition for the historically underserved communities that most need it. Four states (California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York, Massachusetts) opened formal proceedings to work on these and related issues in 2020. California’s proceeding builds on a previous stakeholder-driven process. As we continue to engage in these conversations, we hope to build on the working relationships we’ve strengthened this year and use those processes to further the priorities of our many diverse partners.

Looking Ahead to 2021

We expect cities and states across the nation will continue to lead the way to healthier, cleaner, more affordable buildings in 2021, finding new and creative ways to support adoption of efficient all-electric technology. New leadership at the federal level can also support the move to pollution-free buildings and ensure that economic recovery efforts support the clean technologies that are key to meeting our climate goals.

Whatever happens, we must build on what we learned this year and leverage all of this momentum to prioritize and benefit historically underserved BIPOC communities. After all, the fight against climate change is a fight to protect the planet for its people; we will only truly win if we uplift the most vulnerable of those people every step of the way.

About the Authors

Alejandra Mejia Cunningham

Building Decarbonization Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Merrian Borgeson

Senior Scientist, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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