A Climate Battle Raging Across America, and in Your Kitchen

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

A climate battle is quietly raging in homes across America. Cities are increasingly adopting and implementing policies to reduce carbon emissions at every level, despite opposition from Washington’s biggest construction and fossil fuel trade associations. The International Code Council, which, despite its name, serves primarily the U.S., met this week to evaluate about two dozen proposals that, if implemented, could require new homes to be built with features that would ease a transition to net-zero living

  • Potential features include outlets near stoves so that residents could opt to switch to electric stoves in the future, and increased power supply to garages, to give occupants a way to charge an electric car. 
  • These codes would set a foundation for a greener future, but the energy industry argues these changes are “premature” and builders associations agree.

Why This Matters: Buildings and their construction comprise about 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon emissions annually. About 40% of all energy consumption in the U.S. comes from residential and commercial buildings. Reducing these emissions at scale is the low-hanging fruit that helps us achieve our emissions reductions goals. 

The Paris Climate Agreement, which the U.S. officially leaves the day after the 2020 Presidential election, specifies that to limit the increase of earth’s average temperature, the energy use of built infrastructure will have to be reduced by 30 percent by 2030. Cities and states are key players in ensuring that local codes become updated to support energy efficiency. “There are few things that are more impactful than energy code,” said Stacey Miller, the sustainability program coordinator for Minneapolis, “so we see this as critical.”

The Public Interest: Despite the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris agreement, many cities and mayors have pledged to continue working to reach its goals. Many cities have set their sights on retrofitting and renovation, aiming to reduce the carbon footprint of what already exists. In New York City, the Climate Mobilization Act authorized new windows and insulation, and heat sensors, to make old buildings more energy efficient. These new codes would focus entirely on future development, building green infrastructure into the foundations of each new home built, not only making homes greener but making green behaviors and choices more accessible to the public

Furthermore, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) helps low-income homes across America weatherize and save on energy costs, but it has a yearly maximum capacity of 35,000 and is vastly underfunded. Should Joe Biden be elected this November, expanding WAP to cover more homes could far exceed the already impressive 2 million metric tons of emissions saved annually by the program. 

Biden has already made a commitment to increasing building efficiency in his platform, pledging to retrofit 4 million buildings with efficiency improvements in his first term should he be elected. This would go a long way in helping ease the disproportionate energy burden faced by low-income households who already typically spend 20% of their income on energy purchases. 

Fighting Dirty: The fossil fuel industry’s opposition to these rules is not new. Despite the new codes, the industry and its trade associations are concerned about the costs of implementing the new policy as well as losing their historical influence over the process for setting building codes, efficiency experts say. 

The National Association of Home Builders went so far as to sign a secret deal that guaranteed them 4 out of 11 voting seats on two committees that decide building codes adopted nationwide. This deal granted them immense power; they were able to thwart residential increases in energy efficiency by 29% in only 6 years.

Now, trade organizations are coming out vocally against new climate-friendly codes. The Leading Builders Association argued in a Council meeting that governmental members were “recruited by special interests for the sole purpose of advancing their agenda.” 

  • Craig Drumheller, assistant vice-president of construction codes and standards for the National Association of Homebuilders said in an interview that the Council’s process disregarded their interests and that there were “holes in the process that got taken advantage of, and those holes need to be plugged”. 
  • Madison Neal, a spokeswoman for the council welcomed dialogue and criticism but emphasized that only governmental representatives “who have no financial or business interest in the outcome” can have the final say in the matter.

Miller believes that government officials are the best people to be representing the public. “I feel like we’re the strongest advocates for the public interest,” she said of her and her peers, government officials from San Diego, Boston, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Seattle, Honolulu, Charlotte, Orlando, and more. “That’s our job as government officials – unlike for-profit or trade organizations where there are other motivations.”


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