In the summer of 2019, the city council in Berkeley, California, made a bold and unprecedented move: They banned natural gas hookups in most new building construction.
Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who sponsored the new ordinance, had been on a hunt for ways to reduce the city’s carbon emissions. “We looked at where our emissions were coming from and found that natural gas in buildings played a significant role,” she says—they accounted for a whopping 37 percent of the city’s total. Cars are another big source, but the city has no authority to regulate tailpipe emissions. But buildings? “This is an area we can tackle,” Harrison says.
Berkeley’s pioneering ordinance spurred a wave of similar efforts. Since 2019, more than 40 cities in California have passed similar measures. Proposals to ban gas hookups are now under consideration in Colorado, Washington State, and Massachusetts.
Climate experts have long said that buildings old and new will need to wean themselves off fossil fuels. Today, buildings account for more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—a number that will have to drop rapidly if the country hopes to hit the emissions reductions goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
But the growing movement to restrict natural gas hookups has also unleashed an aggressive campaign by the natural gas industry to preemptively ban the bans.
The American Gas Association, an industry trade group, vowed in an email statement to “absolutely oppose any effort to ban natural gas or sideline our infrastructure anywhere the effort materializes, state house or city [hall] steps.” So far, six states, including Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah, have passed legislation forbidding such bans. Similar legislation is being considered in 14 other states.
Buildings are carbon hogs
Because buildings use so much energy, they have the potential to be a big part of any solution to the climate crisis.
Globally, buildings account for nearly 30 percent of all energy-related CO2emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program—and nearly 40 percent if emissions during construction are included. Their contribution is growing as construction soars in both developed and developing countries. Some projections suggest that building emissions could double or triple by 2050 if major efforts to build better don’t materialize.
The 95 million residential and commercial buildings in the United States account for about 28 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of that total are “indirect emissions”—the carbon actually comes out of the stacks at power plants that generate the electricity used for the buildings’ lighting, air conditioning, and electric heating. The remaining 12 percent—about as much as the entire country of Brazil or slightly more than all of Germany—are “direct emissions,” primarily from natural gas and heating oil burned in the buildings themselves to heat them and their water.
The challenge is to clean up both kinds of emissions. The U.S. electricity sector is already getting greener: Its emissions have dropped by nearly 30 percent from a 2005 peak, largely as a result of renewable energy sources like wind and solar replacing coal and natural gas in power plants. That trend will only accelerate in coming years as more renewable energy sources come online.
To fully decarbonize the nation’s buildings, though, direct emissions will need to be addressed—and the best way, experts say, is to convert buildings to run only on electricity. If all new construction in the U.S. were built all-electric starting in 2022, the building sector’s overall emissions would drop by 11 percent by 2050, according to analyses from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency and sustainability issues.
RMI also found that retrofitting existing buildings with all electric components, starting in 2030, would push the sectors’ emissions down by 90 percent by 2050, says RMI’s Mike Henchen. In what may be the most ambitious effort to address building emissions, New York City passed a 2019 law requiring most of its bigger buildings, both commercial and residential, to reduce their emissions 40 percent by 2030. (The Empire State building has already hit that target.)
Although climate gains from new construction alone are relatively small, because few new buildings are constructed each year, ending the use of fossil fuels in new construction will change the landscape in ways that will pay big climate dividends far in the future, experts say.
“We’re already very deep in the hole, and we can’t just keep digging it deeper,” says Sara Baldwin, a buildings expert at Energy Innovation, a climate and energy research center. Read Full Article >