clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The next frontier for climate action is the great indoors

Americans run “mini fossil fuel plants” in their homes. It’s time for change.

Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Millions of Americans are still reliant on gas combustion for their furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces, stoves, and ovens, not realizing the pollution they create both indoors and outdoors because of it.

“Many of us are basically running mini fossil fuel plants,” said Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara and senior adviser to the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action.

There are over 200 million of these “mini fossil fuel plants” throughout the country — all heaters, clothes dryers, and stoves that run on oil and gas, according to research from Rewiring America. Replacing all of these isn’t an easy thing to imagine or do. But a growing number of advocates argue it’s past time to try.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency published reports raising concerns about air pollution inside homes from gas stoves and heaters. One of the problem pollutants was nitrogen dioxide, which can inflame and aggravate the lungs, but the agencies also reported other concerns about the ozone and particulate matter that built up inside when the appliances are in use.

All this time later, neither agency has made much progress acting on the science and regulating these gas appliances indoors. But climate experts are arguing they still can.

A new Evergreen Action road map shared with Vox envisions an ambitious transition for clean buildings that don’t run on gas, arguing that President Joe Biden could use the full powers of the federal government and explore untapped regulatory powers at the EPA and Energy Department to slash building emissions.

Further action is needed, Evergreen argues, because the incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act to electrify buildings will be far from enough to slash pollution in the short timeframe we have.

If the administration indeed enacts the steps recommended here, Americans may even look back someday and wonder how they could have tolerated fossil fuel combustion in the home for so long.

No agency is taking responsibility for gas’s impact on air quality

Gas appliances have fallen through the cracks of federal regulation in part because the EPA sees the Clean Air Act as charging it with overseeing outdoor air. “There’s no equivalent clean indoor air act,” said New York University’s Jack Lienke, co-director of the Institute for Policy Integrity and a co-author of a history of the EPA law.

No matter where it’s burned, natural gas emits a cocktail of dangerous emissions, including nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. It’s also a contributor to climate change, as a source for carbon dioxide and methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more powerful a planet warmer than carbon in the short term.

Outdoors, the EPA considers these pollutants hazardous to breathe; scientific evidence shows they’re just as, if not more, dangerous indoors. Gas cooking, for instance, can raise the risk of childhood asthma by 42 percent, according to a 2013 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The science is also clear that what happens inside doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Furnaces and water heaters have to vent their emissions directly outdoors, for example (stoves and ovens face no such requirements), and that pollution doesn’t just disappear. The consequences are exacerbated in communities of color, where homes tend to run on less efficient appliances and communities already bear the burden of greater outdoor particulate matter. One analysis by RMI found that Black Americans are 55 percent more likely to die prematurely from the impacts of fossil fuel appliance pollution compared to white Americans. Another study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, found residential gas combustion and commercial cooking to be the largest drivers of the racial disparity in pollution exposure for people of color compared to white people.

Gas appliances have also grown to become a leading cause of death from cross-state air pollution, according to a 2020 paper published in Nature. They emitted 425,000 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2017 alone, almost three times the amount attributable to gas-fired power plants in that year. In another study, scientists at Stanford found leaky pipes and valves can leech methane into the air even when the appliance is off.

If the pollution source were a tailpipe, or a power plant, then the EPA would regulate it. The EPA has made, admittedly slow, progress regulating vehicles, power plants, and oil operators. As a result of regulations and market changes, electricity is less polluting overall, now second to transportation in its share of US greenhouse gas emissions. Coal is shrinking as a part of the power sector since its peak in 2007, and it’s going to shrink further as a result of new IRA spending.

As the grid is getting cleaner, buildings hooked up to electricity will also have a dwindling footprint and, hopefully, use less energy overall with more energy-efficient machines. But a building that runs on gas will always burn a fossil fuel for its heat. And today that footprint is considerably large: 13 percent of the nation’s climate pollution comes directly from these gas-burning machines.

There’s a large federal investment coming to support electrified buildings through the Inflation Reduction Act, but it only goes so far. Take, for example, the $4.5 billion for the electrification rebate program for lower- and moderate-income households. “That money is going to be spent relatively quickly,” Stokes said.

It’s far from ideal when “we have to be pointing all decisions in the economy toward clean buildings,” she added. “Whenever somebody has a hot water tank or a furnace that dies, we need the next appliance to be a clean one, because these appliances can operate for 10 to 30 years. Every decision we make now has a consequence decades down the line.”

Buildings are gaining more scrutiny from the Biden administration

The Biden administration has made some limited progress on buildings, mostly through pledges, executive orders, and summits focused on indoor air quality.

One development so far has been at Energy Star, a joint program run by the EPA and Energy, which helps promote products that reduce energy consumption for consumers. Up until this year, the program included gas dryers, furnaces, and boilers in its most efficient categories. But the agencies announced for the foreseeable future it will discontinue gas categories on the list, as it monitors market changes. The agencies agreed with commenters’ case that gas technology was trailing far behind Energy Star’s standards, and the distinction wasn’t serving the program’s environmentally conscious consumers or Biden’s climate goals.

What will come next? Evergreen’s road map indicates the Biden administration has plenty of unexplored territory to clean up building pollution.

One of the most ambitious of the proposals suggests that, because what happens indoors affects air quality and climate change everywhere, the EPA should finally take action through the Clean Air Act, through a section of the law meant to deal with new sources of pollution. Enacting rules under this section would mean manufacturers have to meet certain performance standards for new appliances. It is a bold step, but not one without precedent. The EPA already issues standards for wood stoves and heaters, and applies the same section to manufacturers of other consumer products, like the car.

The EPA has a model to follow. States have adopted gas appliance emission standards, including in Texas, California, New York, and Utah. Evergreen suggests the EPA adopt one of two proposals. One is an ambitious draft proposal from California’s South Coast air quality management district, which set a zero-emissions target for nitrogen oxides from appliances. Evergreen recommends this target to be national no later than 2030, effectively phasing out manufacturer sales of these appliances.

The clearest drawback to leveraging the Clean Air Act is the arduous road to regulation. The EPA has a series of steps it follows in issuing new regulations, and it can take many years to check all the boxes (not to mention work through ensuing court challenges).

Despite the time it would take, some climate wonks are already eager to move this plan into gear. In August, 27 environmental organizations submitted a formal petition to EPA calling for the inclusion of appliances as a source category under Section 111(b) in the Clean Air Act.

EPA regulation doesn’t prevent the Energy Department from issuing its own rules for energy efficiency, which might be much faster. There are 47 efficiency standards for appliances that the department could enact or upgrade. These would affect not just gas appliances, but electric models like air source heat pumps, too. Upgrading all 47 of these standards, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, would lessen the energy demands buildings put on the grid, saving up to 25 coal plants of carbon pollution by 2050.

None of these regulations would touch existing stoves and furnaces. But eventually, it would mean fewer gas appliances on the market and likely lower the cost of electric replacements over time. It’s also a signal to manufacturers that gas combustion is a technology to leave behind.

There are other avenues the Biden administration could take, setting national performance standards for the federal government’s own building stock among them. Stokes said it’s not an either-or situation, but an all-of-government approach that’s needed to make real progress on cleaner buildings. “If we delay on that, it’s not going to get easier to do.” “We need as much time as possible,” she added, to find and replace the millions of mini-fossil fuel plants inside the home.