Watching, waiting for governor to act on climate change

An oil pump at work in Kern County. (Photo: Ronnie Chua, via Shutterstock)

Gov. Newsom promised accelerated action on climate change. We’re still waiting.

Standing in the ashes of a forest ravaged by California’s worst-ever fire season, Gov. Newsom proclaimed last fall that our state was experiencing a “climate damn emergency,” and promised to accelerate climate efforts “across the entire spectrum.”

These promises were light on details. Six months later, we’re still waiting for clarity—and watching, with growing frustration, as yet another low-cost, high-impact opportunity to act on climate and protect public health passes him by.

California currently builds more fossil fuel homes annually than any other state in the nation. That’s right, on this, the nation’s supposed climate leader ranks last dead last.

Numerous studies underscore that one of Gov. Newsom’s top priorities should be phasing out fossil fuels in new buildings while heeding the call from environmental justice and equity organizations to support low-income communities and communities of color in transitioning to healthy, clean energy homes by 2030.

A report out last month from UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment reinforces the urgency; meeting California’s climate targets hinges on transitioning our buildings off fossil fuels. The California Energy Commission’s building code update—the report finds—is a key opportunity to kickstart the transition.

Unfortunately, the Energy Commission is poised to move forward with a policy that, while a step in the right direction, fails to meet the urgency of this moment. The governor, despite his promises, has yet to weigh in on the issue. We urgently need the governor to step up to the mantle of climate leadership, before it’s too late.

The Energy Commission’s proposed standard for new buildings does not deliver the climate and air pollution reductions that we urgently need—despite more than 100 organizations calling for an all-electric code, more than 40 California cities having already moved to restrict the use of gas locally, and despite overwhelming evidence that burning gas generates dangerous air pollution in homes that dramatically increases the risk of childhood asthma.

California currently builds more fossil fuel homes annually than any other state in the nation. That’s right, on this, the nation’s supposed climate leader ranks last dead last. To add insult to injury, by continuing to build with fossil fuels, California is increasing energy and housing costs for cash-strapped families. The Commission’s update would do nothing to address these issues.

Many studies show that new all-electric homes are less expensive to build and operate. That’s why the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects is in favor of fossil fuel-free homes and why the state’s second-largest affordable housing developer is already building all-electric. It makes economic sense.

If the Energy Commission fails to act this year, it will lock Californian’s into spending more than $1 billion on unnecessary gas infrastructure while adding three million tons of carbon emissions by 2030—the equivalent tailpipe pollution from more than 650,000 cars.

If powering homes with clean energy sounds impractical, consider this: European nations including France, the Netherlands, and the UK are all moving to phase out gas heating in the next few years. Closer to home, the Republican governor of Massachusetts is proposing a statewide policy that would ensure all-electric new construction this decade. In Washington state, Gov. Inslee is pushing legislation to transition off the gas system entirely while providing a just transition for workers.

California has a long history of ground-breaking climate leaders; Gov. Newsom still has the opportunity to secure his place in this legacy. But doing so will require proving that his words on that terrible September day weren’t empty promises. We need the governor to step up and put California on a path to affordable, pollution-free homes today.

Editor’s Note: Jonny Kocher is the Hub Coordinator at Sunrise Bay Area. Rachel Golden is the deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Building Electrification program.

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