New bill will address California’s most overlooked climate problem

Energy efficient housing, image by Miha Creative via shutterstock

OPINION – California has made dramatic progress cutting climate pollution in the past two decades. Spurred by the landmark passage of AB 32 in 2006, the state slashed significant pollution from the power sector between 2000 to 2022, even hitting our 2020 clean energy goals early. Pollution from cars and trucks in the state, our largest source of pollution, dropped 22% over the past two decades.

But there is one sector where emissions are not dropping fast enough, or even at all – and that’s the buildings sector. Buildings are the state’s second largest source of planet-warming climate pollution – representing close to 25% of California’s emissions – and yet they may just be our most overlooked climate problem. Emissions from commercial buildings increased a whopping 51% between 2000 and 2020 while pollution from residential emissions fell a mere 3%.

The power and transportation sectors have benefited from concrete targets like renewable energy generation standards and zero-emission vehicles sales targets that helped manufacturers, policymakers and the public understand the path to cutting emissions – but no such plan exists for homes and buildings. Fortunately, a bill before the California legislature, AB 593 (Haney), will change that by ensuring regulators develop a comprehensive plan to cut emissions from the building sector in line with our state’s climate targets in a way that prioritizes workers and low-income households.  If we’ve learned one thing from the accelerating frequency and intensity of wildfires, extreme heat, storms, and flooding in California, it’s that later is too late to act on climate. The moment to act is now.

And we have good reason to fast-track action on this issue specifically – because homes and buildings are many communities’ first line of defense against the extreme conditions being created by the climate crisis. Roughly 25% of California households lack the cooling they need to stay safe during heat waves, and many more lack filtration systems to remove air pollutants like wildfire smoke. This leaves residents extremely vulnerable to health impacts from heat and smoke.

Fortunately, the path to providing cooling and air filtration upgrades, and the path to cutting pollution from homes and buildings in line with our state’s climate targets, are one and the same. Heat pumps, or smart ACs, are a zero-emission appliance that can provide more efficient cooling than central AC, filter out dangerous air pollution, and provide energy bill savings. Replacing gas furnaces and water heaters with clean, electric heat pumps will cut emissions from heating in half over the lifetime of the appliances.

Buildings are the state’s second largest source of planet-warming climate pollution – representing close to 25% of California’s emissions – and yet they may just be our most overlooked climate problem.

Upgrading California’s 14 million homes to be climate-ready is going to be a big job – and California is up for it. Not only will AB 593 help guide our state to reduce pollution – it will do it in a way that maximizes benefits for communities, workers, manufacturers, and ratepayers alike.

There’s a lot to love about the benefits of upgrading homes with zero-emission appliances beyond increased climate-resilience – starting with the creation of good jobs. According to an analysis from UCLA, upgrading California’s homes to run on clean energy could support more than 100,000 full-time workers in the construction industry and up to 4,900 full-time manufacturing workers.

From traditional Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to tech start-ups, innovators are already investing in solutions to make decarbonizing homes and buildings simpler and more cost-effective. But just like with zero-emission transportation, setting a comprehensive emissions-reduction plan will provide certainty to the market that climate-friendly, green electric homes and buildings are the next big thing.

Upgrading California’s homes with zero-emission appliances will also improve air quality in communities hard-hit by dangerous air pollution. Fossil fuel appliances in homes are responsible for four times more lung-damaging nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution than our state’s gas power plants, and two-thirds as much NOx as passenger cars. Transitioning to zero-emission heat pumps can help eliminate this pollution and protect public health.

While California has been a national leader in fighting climate change, we’ve fallen behind on the necessary steps we need to take to both cut pollution from homes and buildings while ensuring they can be places of refuge as the climate crisis bears down. AB 593 will be a significant step in helping the state recapture its climate leadership, while also ensuring that when wildfires and heatwaves inevitably strike, communities have the resources they need to stay healthy at home.

Beckie Menten is a senior regulatory and policy specialist at the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

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