The Sacramento-based group recently released a report, A Roadmap to Decarbonize California Buildings, which sets out a series of guiding principles and quantitative targets that could help the state meet its aggressive emissions reductions standards. As BDC’s name suggests, the group has targeted buildings, which in California produce roughly 26 percent of total carbon emissions, as a key area for improvement as the state works to eliminate carbon emissions entirely by 2045.
California’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in the early 2010s at nearly 500 million tons of pollution per year and have dropped slightly every year since. California even met its 2020 emissions goals several years early, mainly as a result of the ongoing build-out of previously-planned renewable energy infrastructure and due to the realization of energy conservation goals, among other efforts. But now, with the low-hanging fruit picked, reality is starting to set in: The road to zero emissions is going to be long and hard-fought, and California needs a concrete, coordinated plan to achieve its ambitious and necessary climate goals.
But don’t let those early gains fool you. Despite the progress, Panama Bartholomy, BDC director said via press release, “building emissions spiked 10 percent nationally in 2018, driving one of the largest national emissions increases in decades.” Bartholomy added, “Yet even here in California, the nation’s climate leader, there is no plan in place to address these emissions.”
The BDC hopes to change that.
While state legislators work steadily to make increasing density—which will reduce transportation-related emissions—a higher priority in California’s cities, BDC aims to fine-tune the ongoing use, operation, and maintenance of the new and existing buildings that fill those cities. It is expected that California’s building stock will increase by 30 percent between now and 2045, a key opportunity to lock-in carbon emissions savings for the long term if all goes according to plan.
A key approach for achieving this aim in the building sector, according to the group, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the reliance on natural gas-powered appliances like stoves, furnaces, water heaters, and other elements in new construction and in existing buildings as they are upgraded over time. This way, as the state’s energy grid draws more of its juice from renewable sources, emissions will fall two-fold due to a decrease in the use of dirty fuels in appliances as well further savings generated through the production of the new green energy sources that power them.
As with many of the efforts to transition toward a zero-emission society, however, the challenges are cultural as well as technological.
Conventional construction methods and business operations favor fossil fuel-powered appliances, for example, while consumers harbor their own preferences for gas stoves and other household items. To shift tastes and practices, BDC advocates for incentives over punitive measures.
The group’s three-pronged effort seeks to first spur new demand in renewable powered appliances via new policies, public information campaigns, and financial incentives that support wider adoption of sustainable approaches. Once that demand is built up, the group advocates for lowering costs of individual products, like high-efficiency heat pumps, for example, through additional financial incentives so that cleaner technologies and appliances can compete with conventional approaches across price points. After that, the group envisions targeted informational and incentive campaigns that ensure wide adoption of these approaches by low-income and other hard-to-reach groups.
With debate over national decarbonization strategies taking shape, keep an eye on California’s efforts to rework its building sector. Crucial lessons are sure to emerge as the plan comes to life.