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Strong statewide action builds momentum for building decarbonization in California

Here in California, we are seeing the impacts of climate change worsen every year –  from devastating fires accelerated by increasingly hotter and drier seasons to severe drought that is threatening our water supplies and the clean, reliable hydropower powering thousands of homes and businesses. And there is extreme heat, dubbed the “silent killer” of climate change, which is growing more intense and lasting longer. These threats impact the state’s 39 million residents and are felt most acutely in environmental justice communities that endure structural racism and systemic inequities, stranding them with fewer resources as they experience the disproportionate impact of climate change.

To tackle these challenges, California is going big on climate this year. State leaders are poised to approve billions of dollars on a climate package later this month in the state budget. And there has also been a wave of policymaking focused on targeting one of the state’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions – our buildings. Using gas for heating, water heating, cooking, and more, homes and buildings produce about a quarter of the emissions in the state, contributing to warming temperatures that fuel the climate crisis. 

California has been steadily building on what local cities initiated three years ago: enacting zero-emission requirements for new homes and buildings to achieve their local Climate Action Plans and emission reduction efforts. There is now the beginnings of strong statewide action to phase out gas to transition to clean electricity in not only new homes and buildings, but existing ones as well. California’s leadership on building decarbonization has created a path forward to actualizing a safer, cleaner, and more equitable future. These actions can serve as a catalyst for a comprehensive roadmap that takes on the challenges of building decarbonization for other states to follow on the transition to zero-emission, healthy homes. 

Set the nation’s most ambitious goals for healthy, climate-ready homes.  

Last month, Governor Newsom set the boldest targets in the nation: 3 million climate-ready homes and the deployment of 6 million heat pumps by 2030, and 7 million homes by 2035. At least 50% of the funding to achieve these goals will be directed to low-income and environmental justice communities. 

This statewide goal, supported by funding in this year’s budget, is an incredible investment that could equip half of California’s 13.1 million households with heat pumps and other clean electric appliances. Nearly doubling the amount of heat pumps sold in the U.S. in 2020, the target to create 7 million climate-ready homes sends a strong market signal to manufacturers and contractors across the country that the market for heat pumps will not only increase but soar this decade, which would help increase contractor and technician confidence and inspire rapid mobilization from manufacturers. As a result, this would drive down prices and make heat pumps more affordable for Californians.

Require all-electric construction for the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program.

In May, environmental groups submitted a support letter to the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program for proposed guidelines requiring all-electric construction for projects that receive these funds. The letter noted that “shifting the state’s largest affordable housing program to all-electric construction is a critical step to ensure these communities are prioritized in California’s transition, and they are the first to reap the benefits of building electrification.” These proposed guidelines are expected to be adopted near the end of this year.

End ratepayer subsidies for fossil fuels.

Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) proposed ending subsidies for connecting new homes to the gas system – a move that will save ratepayers $144 million annually and improve both indoor and outdoor air quality for Californians, and in a separate decision, proposed ending rebates for new gas appliances. These critical changes will level the playing field between clean appliances and fossil fuels, and can make it easier for households to transition to clean, electric appliances. 

Rapidly increase heat pump sales and improve indoor and outdoor air quality. 

Recently, as part of the state’s plan for coming into compliance with federal air quality standards for ozone, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) proposed increasing the sales of clean appliances that provide hot water and heating and cooling, while phasing out the sale of gas appliances by 2030 statewide. If adopted in September, the zero-emissions standard would be a momentous, first-in-the-nation step – delivering key air quality benefits that are especially urgent in low-income communities and communities of color. Our homes and buildings generate roughly two-thirds as much nitrogen oxides (NOX) as all of the state’s light-duty passenger cars, and is an important sector to decarbonize in order for California to meet federal air quality standards. 

In light of this, the Building Decarbonization Coalition joined manufacturers, environmental groups, and environmental justice organizations in submitting a letter supporting this effort while emphasizing the need for an approach that will “improve public health and quality of life for environmental justice communities and frontline community representatives, produce good jobs and careers for Californians, and provide the consistency and certainty that is needed to create a healthy market for building decarbonization.” Aligned with a number of environmental justice advocates, the letter recommends a cross-sector working group of diverse stakeholders to lead a “truly transformational approach to the sector.” 

Invest nearly $1 billion to provide low-income households with heat pumps and additional holistic building upgrades.

State leaders are considering almost $1 billion in funding to help low-income households receive heat pumps and additional holistic building upgrades that will provide life-saving cooling, improve air quality, and enhance resiliency. Many groups are also calling for $500 million to fund the TECH Clean California program — an investment that would keep the most successful heat pump program in the country running and continuing to deploy thousands of heat pumps to California households, of which at least 50% would be targeted to low-income and environmental justice communities. 

This nearly $1 billion investment would be a critical down payment on what is needed to support California in meeting its ambitious, new climate-ready homes and heat pump targets.

These critical steps in policymaking and investments build momentum towards California’s goal of attaining 100% zero-emission residential and commercial buildings by 2045. California’s leadership to decarbonize its building sector can serve as a model for the nation to create immense climate, health, and economic benefits. To ensure an equitable, responsible, timely, and affordable transition for Californian workers and households, we need a comprehensive roadmap to realize the benefits of building decarbonization while thoughtfully taking on the challenges. To that end, the Building Decarbonization Coalition is working in partnership with manufacturers, environmental justice organizations, environmental groups, contractors, builders, and labor groups to develop a holistic framework for decarbonizing the state’s building stock.