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A California coalition is tackling one of the hardest, unsexiest parts of climate policy

Decarbonizing buildings: it’s tedious, but oh so necessary.

A woman walks toward the new green headquarters building of the California Air Resources Board.
The new green headquarters of the California Air Resources Board.

Ask most people about reducing carbon emissions to tackle climate change and they will mention solar panels or electric cars — the sexy stuff.

But scaling up the sexy stuff is only half the job.

The challenges of decarbonization fall into four basic buckets. There’s the electricity grid, which is rapidly getting less carbon-intensive as coal fades and renewables rise. There’s transportation, where there’s a long, long way to go, but the path is clear, namely electrifying the vehicle fleet as rapidly as possible and reducing vehicle use through densification and public transit.

Those two make up the sexy half, which gets wildly disproportionate attention.

Then there’s heavy industry, which everyone ignores in these conversations and I’m going to ignore as well, at least in this post.

And then there’s the fourth bucket: buildings. As the Green New Deal acknowledges, any plan to tackle climate change has to tackle the building sector, even if it won’t get headlines.

Gotta green ‘em all.

Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions and roughly the same proportion of US emissions. Part of that is the “embedded emissions” represented by building materials (steel and concrete are extremely carbon-intensive to manufacture). But the bigger part is from direct combustion of fossil fuels — sometimes propane or heating oil, especially in the Northeast, but primarily natural gas — for space and water heating.

Some 70 million buildings in the US use fossil fuel-burning appliances for heat. Unless some cheap, abundant zero-carbon liquid fuel shows up (there are zero-carbon hydrogen-based fuels in development, but nothing close to wide commercialization), decarbonizing those buildings means electrifying them — ripping out all those gas-burning appliances and replacing them with electric alternatives. (Electrify everything!)

That is, to say the least, a daunting task, and not exactly one that captures the public imagination. Climate wonks have been sounding the alarm about it lately — see, e.g., the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2018 report on “The Economics of Electrifying Buildings,” which I wrote about, along with my own household struggles with electrification, here — but it has struggled for attention from policymakers.

Now it looks like there’s some serious organizing going on, a real political force gathering behind the challenge of building decarbonization, at least at the state level.

You’ll never guess which state. Ha ha, of course it’s California.

The California Academy of Sciences has a “living roof,” among other green features.
The California Academy of Sciences has a “living roof,” among other green features.
Wikimedia Commons

A bold new plan for decarbonizing California’s building sector

That’s where the Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC) has formed — in their own words, “a diverse assembly of energy providers, public interest advocates, manufacturers, contractors, workers, builders, local governments, real estate interests, and investors spanning California’s building community.”

This week, the BDC released a “Roadmap to Decarbonize California Buildings,” a set of targets, principles, and policies that can meet California’s ambitious emissions goals, which require total, economy-wide decarbonization by 2045.

California greenhouse gas emissions by end use. BDC

The report’s first recommendation, and the most obvious, is for California to stop building new buildings that rely on fossil fuels. As BDC notes, “a third of California’s 2045 building stock will be built between now and then.” Every new fossil-fueled building makes the task of decarbonization that much harder.

So BDC urges the state to adopt Zero Emission Building Codes for residential buildings in 2025 and commercial in 2028. That will stop the problem from getting worse, save residents money (when the cost of new natural gas pipelines is factored in), and stimulate the market for technologies that will help decarbonize existing buildings.

It is existing buildings — the two-thirds of California’s 2045 building stock that’s already built — that are the real challenge.

The bulk of the report is structured around a series of five barriers to building decarbonization. Each of those barriers is treated as an opportunity and an aspiration, and for each one there’s a series of policies offered to meet the challenge.

One of the notorious difficulties of building decarbonization is that it requires coordination of policy across a broad range of stakeholders, from public agencies to private trade associations. To that end, the report’s meta-recommendation, as it were, is for the state to form a Building Decarbonization Interagency Task Force. California needs some kind of central authority or clearinghouse to run this effort.

Residential gas consumption in California, by end use. BDC

Let’s quickly run through the five barriers/opportunities.

1. Building owners and policymakers don’t care much about electrification.

Relative to the need for clean electricity or clean vehicles, the need for building decarbonization is woefully overlooked by advocacy organizations, policymakers, and mainstream customers. There’s not much public awareness or demand.

Solutions: raise awareness through marketing campaigns, education, and the formation of groups and partnerships among local governments and other stakeholders.

2. Building owners don’t see the upside.

By and large, customers don’t see the value in electrifying their homes and businesses. It can be difficult to find good advice or trained contractors. There aren’t many incentives that encourage it. And there aren’t many good financing solutions to pay for it.

Solutions: make electrification valuable by offering incentives, creating low-cost, low-barrier financing options, and getting customer-facing weatherization and efficiency programs aligned around electrification. Also, allow building owners to monetize the grid and carbon benefits of electrification.

3. Builders and contractors don’t see the upside.

The people actually building the buildings rarely have much training in electrification, there are few incentives for them to get training, and there are few rewards for those who do make the effort to push electrification. Plus, consumers aren’t exactly clamoring for it.

Solutions: offer builders and contractors incentives, align permitting and policies around electrification, and create certifications and rewards for builders and renovators who do electrification well.

4. Electrification tools, technologies, and procedures aren’t widely available.

The electrical systems needed to replace fossil fuels in buildings are not yet manufactured in the national numbers necessary to achieve economies of scale that would drive prices down and spur a mass market. Manufacturers are not aware of the need and there are no appliance standards that push them in the right direction. And many buildings lack the electrical paneling necessary to accommodate full electrification.

Solutions: upgrade electrical panels statewide; create performance standards (BDC says voluntary; I say mandatory) for electrification technologies and reward those who achieve high standards with government procurement contracts; do a national marketing and awareness campaign for heats pumps. (Make heat pumps sexy again!)

heat pump
Just look at this heat pump. Hubba hubba!

5. Policy is badly misaligned.

As BDC says, California’s “goals, utility incentives, policies, programs, and metrics” are not well-aligned to achieve building electrification. One example: efficiency programs reward reduced electricity consumption, even though in many cases electrification will increase consumption. Efficiency incentives can, perversely, disincentivize electrification.

To boot, California has no real plan to transition off its old fossil fuel infrastructure. And local governments, which control local building and energy codes, aren’t clued in and don’t support electrification.

Solutions: align policies to ensure that they target broad reductions in emissions, not merely reductions in energy use in particular sectors; get the state public utility commission (CPUC) to start official proceedings on a transition away from natural gas; and offer local governments support and education.

Building decarbonization is a herding-cats problem, not a better-mousetrap problem

What makes the building decarbonization challenge so difficult is that it’s not about better technology. The tools to make any (new or existing) building carbon neutral exist and are in commercial use, though their prices need to come down. The same goes for sustainable building materials and the tools for capturing and recycling water and waste. Technically speaking, we know how to do green buildings.

The problem is that decision makers in the building sector are highly distributed. Owners, contractors, utilities, regulators, local officials, and state legislators all have some say in how buildings are built and run.

By way of illustration, check out this graphic from BDC charting the relevant actions needed in California and the variety of stakeholders involved:

Building stakeholders.
That’s a lot of cats to herd!

As the chart makes clear, the main challenge of building decarbonization is coordination: getting a bunch of different stakeholders on the same page and moving in the same direction.

That’s not the kind of climate solution we enjoy talking about. We like talking about whizbang new technologies. And we like talking about “political will,” as though merely wanting our goals hard enough, or proposing grand enough targets, is the key to success. We like drama.

But climate policies live and die in the details, the prioritization, the accounting, the execution. The true heroes of climate policy are not the fiery speechmakers or the brilliant tech entrepreneurs, but the mid-level civil servants and trade association managers, the ones sitting through all the endless conference calls required to translate lofty plans into action on the ground.

Those are the heroes we need to decarbonize buildings. It’s good to see them beginning to organize around it.

As the report says, two of the three ingredients for building decarbonization in California are now in place: “a path forward and a coalition of the willing.” What remains now is for state leaders to get moving.