One of the biggest threats to changing what we’re doing to fight climate change – which is no longer “sometime in the future, maybe” … comes from corporate interests to keep things as they’ve been, to maintain profitability. Change, of most any kind, is a threat. You might think of building codes as affecting only new construction; it affects everything. Comments afterwards.
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With Time Running Out To Cut Carbon From Buildings, Industry Just Tightened Its Grip
Mundane as it may seem, the future of U.S. climate policy could rest on what happens over the next few years with national building codes.
7 July 2021
Buildings are huge generators of planet-warming gases, with fossil fuels responsible for everything from heating and cooling to cooking and charging our devices. Experts say a massive overhaul of building efficiency is imperative within the next decade to prevent catastrophic warming.
Building codes are updated every three years, and making those more aggressive is the most obvious way to make such an overhaul happen ― requiring things like energy-saving windows and chargers for electric vehicles, and eliminating natural gas-powered appliances. But as the private consortium that writes the codes that all 50 states adopt is preparing for the next round, it has given industries opposed to climate progress even more power over the process.
Last week, the International Code Council, a nonprofit made up of industry groups and local governments, named 93 people to its committees writing the 2024 codes for commercial and residential buildings. In a departure from past years, it gave industry groups the same representation as government officials.
Until recently, the ICC gave local governments the final say over what building codes included. But …
The group revoked regulators’ right to
vote on codes earlier this year, bowing
to pressure from the building industry
and gas utilities. Now, powerful industry
players with profits on the line have veto
power over the final codes under a new
system that requires a two-thirds major-
ity of the committee to approve the rules.
The ICC insists the new system will set a clear path to zeroing out emissions from buildings.
“The commitment to deliver pathways to zero
energy buildings is baked into the process,”
… ICC Vice President Ryan Colker said via a spokesperson, using shorthand for buildings that produce virtually no emissions or offset as much pollution as they create.
But fossil fuel utilities appear to see it as a way to prevent cities from banning new buildings from using natural gas, according to an internal trade association document HuffPost obtained.
The effect, advocates fear, is that the U.S. will fail to bring the 13% of its emissions that come from building furnaces and stovetops down to zero in time to avoid climate disaster. That could make the announcement ― mundane as it may sound ― one of the most consequential climate policy decisions of the decade, with just two or three code cycles left to make a meaningful change in building emissions before scientists say it could be too late.
“The makeup of the committees should deli-
ver a code that is better than the 2021 code,”
… said Kim Cheslak, director of codes for the nonprofit New Buildings Institute and a member of the commercial buildings committee. “But the committee membership and voting process as we understand it will allow for a small faction of members susceptible to special interest pressures to stop the final code from meeting what’s necessary for electrification and resilience of our buildings.”
’Consensus’ Vs. Climate
The ICC’s previous code-writing system didn’t guarantee climate-friendly mandates. The National Association of Home Builders and its industry allies have long wielded their power to push for status quo codes that minimized developers’ costs and maximized profit. As a result, two of the last three rounds of energy codes improved efficiency of new buildings by a paltry 1% each time.
In recent years, though, more cities and towns have focused on the ICC as a place where they could push for tougher codes. In 2019, a year after United Nations scientists warned that humanity had roughly a decade left to halve global emissions, local governments decided enough was enough. Ahead of a November vote on energy codes, municipalities across the country organized to vote in favor of measures to increase the energy efficiency of new buildings by up to 14% compared to the previous codes. And they won.
But the backlash was swift. First, the National Association of Home Builders and other industry associations challenged the eligibility of hundreds of government officials to cast ballots in the ICC process, essentially accusing them of voter fraud. The ICC ruled that all the votes were valid, but proposed its own fix to the industry groups’ problem: eliminating government officials’ right to vote on the final codes.
For months, cities, environmentalists and architect groups pleaded with the ICC to reject the proposal and maintain the existing system, arguing that it would empower the fossil fuel industry and its allies to stymie efforts to electrify buildings and eliminate gas heating and cooking. But in March, the ICC went ahead with its plans anyway.
The imperative is to reduce greenhouse
gas and energy use from buildings as
quickly as possible, and there’s not a lot
of room for consensus building when you
are talking about fossil fuels in buildings.
The new system, the ICC said, would establish a more deliberative process, making it easier in the long run to make big leaps toward cleaner buildings.
But an internal document from the American Public Gas Association, a trade group representing gas utilities, casts the new policy at the ICC in a darker light. In its 2021 update to its board of directors, the APGA said the change “should be beneficial,” allowing for a “more balanced” code-writing process that would “ensure consumers have a choice in the energy they want in their home or business.”
That language may sound uncontroversial, but energy “choice” is a common industry euphemism for blocking mandates to eliminate fossil fuels. Gas companies have recently stepped up spending on advertising, hiring Instagram influencers in a bid to make gas stoves fashionable.
At a moment when climate models show that any hope of keeping warming in a relatively safe range rests on eliminating fossil fuel use as quickly as possible, the ICC inclusion of gas utilities in the code-writing process risks creating building requirements that are out of sync with the latest science, said Amy Turner, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. She said …
“The ICC is looking at the code-setting process
as an opportunity to build consensus, and
including in that consensus many voices from
the gas and construction industries. But the
imperative is to reduce greenhouse gas and
energy use from buildings as quickly as possible,
and there’s not a lot of room for consensus building
when you’re talking about fossil fuels in buildings.”
A Growing Fight
Over the past year, some cities stepped in to ban new construction from including gas, requiring that developers electrify buildings even if the codes used nationwide don’t yet mandate it. San Francisco and Seattle are among the biggest cities to do so, and the New York City Council introduced a bill last month that would ban new gas hookups within two years of the legislation’s passage.
In response, states where the fossil fuel industry wields particular influence have begun passing laws to bar cities from enacting such bans. Last year, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee put so-called preemption laws into effect. Another 12 states ― Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas and Utah ― are now considering their own preemption bills, spurred by lobbying and advertising campaigns from gas utilities.
The growing conflict over the future of buildings has drawn the attention of federal officials.
In a January letter to the ICC, three Democratic committee leaders in the House of Representatives raised concerns that the National Association of Home Builders’ influence over the code-making process is undermining its “integrity.” The lawmakers have since threatened to hold hearings on the codes.
The Biden administration also warned the ICC against eliminating governments’ right to vote on codes in February, telling the nonprofit that the change would “be detrimental to an appropriate process with appropriate transparency” and stunt “important economic and environmental benefits at the local level.”
Some advocates now hope the Department of Energy will intervene with its own code requirements, creating an alternative to the ICC. A spokesperson for the Energy Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We are pleased to have representation
on the committees, and given that they
have not yet met, it is too early to spe-
culate on what they might do or where
they might land,”
… said Susan Asmus, the National Association of Home Builders’ senior vice president of regulatory affairs.
In the meantime, advocates say they’re waiting to see how things pan out under the new system, and some have created a website, Codes for Climate, to demonstrate what they want to see in the next round of codes. But the carbon in the atmosphere is less patient.
Within days of the ICC announcement, a heat dome formed over northwest North America, sending temperatures into the triple digits and killing hundreds of people between the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian provinces. Part of the problem? Homes that weren’t designed with extreme heat in mind.
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This may seem like a large scale problem that’s controlled by government and industry interests. But there’s a lot you can do, personally, to cause the change we’re needing. I think the last sentence says it all …
“Homes that weren’t designed with extreme heat in mind.”
Well, we’re now seeing daily examples of the effects of global warming. The predicted increases in extreme weather conditions eg drought & flood, intense heat & intense cold, increases in the severity and frequency of hurricanes and tornedos.
And there is not only a lot you can do about it personally, but you may be the only reliable source for doing it, as life quality is our goal, not profit.
If some parts of your site get full sun – and it needn’t just be on your home, as it could be anywhere on your home site – change your power source to photovoltaic panels. “Sometime in the future when they’re practical” is long gone. As football coach George Allen once said,
“The future is now!”
PV panels are the least expensive form of power, so you’ll be saving money from Day #1. In our Garden Atrium homes, a 3 kW installation will usually provide 100% of a home’s power needs. By increasing the installation to 5 kW, we also power our e-car, so we pay nothing for power in our home or in our driving.
And just as gas stations had to be built to accommodate the needs of a growing number of gas cars, electric recharge stations – which are a lot cheaper to install – are being added almost everywhere in our landscape. And an app is available to tell you where the nearest one is.
When I began Garden Atriums, my wife announced that she would “only cook on natural gas!” But when induction electric cooktops came out, we switched. They use a tiny amount of electricity. And we saved nearly $300 a year by disconnecting from natural gas.
You may find other opportunities, depending on how your home is built and where you live. Asking D for comments …
“We think somewhere in here it needs to be said
that building codes are minimum compliance.
Every time a change is made in your home, you
can choose to go beyond minimum compliance.
It is important to think beyond today and look
toward your future with climate change in mind.”
This is another example of the validity of the protestor’s sign, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” As an architect, I’d always looked to the building codes as “The Word.” We now see how the code guidelines benefit profit seekers.