California’s winding road ahead to ‘carbon neutrality’

A photo illustration of carbon-neutral wind power, and fossil-fuel power generation. (Photo: satit_srihin, via Shutterstock)

California is known across the country as a trendsetter in climate regulations, with tough emissions standards and sweeping environmental protections.

Freshman state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), however, is pushing for more ambitious carbon-neutral rules that could move California further ahead of the rest of the nation. The effort, praised by environmentalists,  has drawn fire from utility workers and gas companies.

One bill would require all state buildings to become carbon neutral by 2035.

Cortese, a former Santa Clara County supervisor, hit the ground running after taking office in December. He quickly introduced the “Building Decarbonization Package,” consisting of three senate bills, SB 30, 31 and 32 with their own decarbonization goals.  The terms “decarbonization” and “carbon neutral” refer to removing carbon dioxide from air emissions, with the goal of ultimately achieving zero CO2 emissions.

“Our state has played a vital role in enacting climate justice and energy policies that not only help to decarbonize all sectors of our economy, but lead to drastic benefits in job creation,” Cortese said at a recent conference with Environment California Research & Policy Center. “It’s time we demonstrate the same leadership to shift the publics’ perspective on electrification.

Senate Bill 30, also known as the State Buildings and Assets Decarbonization Act of 2021, would require all state buildings to become carbon neutral by 2035. Furthermore, the bill would require the state to divest from projects, both residential and nonresidential, that are not zero emission by 2023. Finally, starting next year all newly designed and constructed buildings would need to be zero emission, too.

Researchers found California households had 33% less carbon emissions per square foot of residential space than any other state.

“California could stand to reap some of the highest benefits in the country if we electrify all of our buildings by 2050,” said Lizzi Nickerson, a clean energy associate with Environment California. “If we were to go all electric for new buildings and retrofit old buildings to run on electricity, we can reduce emissions in CA by 27.4 million metric tons of CO2, equal to taking 6 million cars off the road.”

This helps avoid the worst impacts of climate change, Nickerson said, and even improves the air quality inside homes and businesses, as well as outside.

In a 2020 peer-reviewed study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan found California households had 33% less carbon emissions per square foot of residential space than any other state.

The study further recommended complete decarbonization of the United States’ electric grid, which they estimated would help meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 in the Paris Agreement.

“In many parts of the country and the state these retrofits are not always cost effective.” — Claudia Deeg

“However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes,” the researchers wrote. “Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.”

Cortese’s SB 31 aims to develop new building decarbonization programs through the California Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission. The bill would allow the energy commission to distribute finding for projects that emphasize commercial and residential building decarbonization technologies. Cortese’s office said the bill is written with an “emphasis on providing opportunities for low-income customers.”

“In many parts of the country and the state these retrofits are not always cost effective,” said Claudia Deeg, an associate with California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG). “Which is why we need to implement policy solutions that can make it more affordable for people to retrofit their homes and buildings.”

Finally, Cortese’s SB 32, also known as the Decarbonization Act of 2021 would create requirements for all municipalities across California to incorporate building decarbonization goals in their respective General Plans, that are in line with State targets.

“What’s to stop us from implementing these policies one town, city or country at a time?” — Dave Cortese

“We think that not only does (decarbonization) provide health benefits for society and communities, we also think this is a win win for consumers, environmental and public health groups and energy providers,” said Jose Torres, with the Build Decarbonization Coalition. “Electrifying our home appliances allows us smarter, more controlled ways to interact with the electric grid. We also think we’ll be able to use clean power more consistently and lower overall costs than it would be to maintain the gas power status quo.”

So far, the supporters and detractors of Cortese’s plan are split almost evenly between environmental and climate justice groups supporting on one side, with union trades groups and gas companies objecting on the other.

In written testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications regarding SB 31, the Utility Workers Union of America wrote that they support decarbonization and “applaud and respect the author’s intent,” but they oppose its premise.

“(The bill) is built on the premise that decarbonization can only happen if we abandon natural gas and, perhaps more importantly, the natural gas infrastructure in exchange for full electrification,” union representatives wrote. “In our view, we can achieve our decarb goals through a mix of solutions that are science-based and cost effective.”

Cortese pushed back on the naysayers, pointing to his experience as a county supervisor in the Bay Area to show that communities are already on board with the statewide changes he has proposed. Almost 40 cities and counties across the state have rules requiring new construction to be 100% powered by electricity, or at least prevent new gas hookups.

“What’s to stop us from implementing these policies one town, city or country at a time?” Cortese said. “There’s a good indication that how powerful the deniers are or the fossil fuel defenders whomever they are and whomever they may be, no matter however powerful they are in Sacramento or even D.C., they don’t have the ability to stop every town, every city, every county.”

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