This op-ed first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
A new report tracking California’s progress toward meeting our climate targets just delivered some sobering numbers: Not only is our state behind on cutting carbon emissions, we’re dangerously behind. At the current rate, California will be six decades late in meeting its 2050 climate goals.
Without deep cuts across all sectors, our 2030 climate targets may soon slip out of reach.
Especially worrisome for California in pursuit of our climate targets is pollution from one source: gas in buildings. While the report found that emissions from the transportation and power sectors are starting to trend in the right direction — albeit much too slowly — emissions from gas use in homes and buildings are actually surging, up 17.8% in the residential sector since 2014.
That’s a big problem for California, as pollution from buildings is responsible for 25% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Eliminating fossil fuels in buildings isn’t just essential to fight climate change, it’s also key to making air safe to breathe. Burning fossil fuels generates nitrogen oxide, ozone and fine particulate matter — pollutants that cause asthma, heart disease and tens of thousands of deaths annually in the state. Gas stoves pump emissions straight into the air people breathe indoors, generating levels of nitrogen oxide that often exceed what is legal outdoors.
While Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken some bold moves to decarbonize transportation — requiring all new passenger vehicles sold after 2035 to be electric and allocating $4.2 billion for clean transportation infrastructure — he and the Legislature have been largely absent from efforts to decarbonize buildings.
Gov. Newsom should follow up his bold executive orders on vehicle decarbonization with a similarly ambitious commitment on building decarbonization. The state needs to commit to a date by which manufacturers should no longer be able to sell fossil-fuel powered furnaces and water heaters in California. Second, the state needs to phase out the use of fossil fuels in buildings entirely by 2045 to meet the state’s climate goals.
Accomplishing these goals won’t be easy; it will require a major budget investment to jump-start the clean appliance economy.
Thankfully, the technology to make the transition to fossil-free buildings is widely available. For space and water heating — the biggest use of fossil fuels in buildings — electric heat pumps are a game-changing technology. They’re far more efficient than old gas-powered and electric heaters because they work by simply moving heat, rather than generating it. Scaled up, they work beautifully for warming (or cooling) your home and heating the water for your dishwasher or shower. A heat pump in place of a furnace can also cool a home, which is becoming critical as extreme heat and wildfire events grow more common.
The widespread expansion of this technology won’t just put a significant dent in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the long run, people who install heat pumps and decarbonize their homes are predicted to pay less for their energy.
But the upfront costs of replacing a burnt-out gas furnace or water heater with a new electric heat pump can be beyond the reach of some low-income homeowners or affordable housing owners. Funding is needed to help the most vulnerable shift to cleaner home appliances and to jump-start the market for appliance retrofits to reduce costs for everyone. Communities that are at risk from wildfire smoke and heat waves need financial help to install heat pumps in homes and community centers so they can efficiently filter and cool air during hazardous weather events. Low-income homeowners and affordable housing operators also need help to offset the costs of upgrades to electrical panels and insulation that make homes ready for electrification.
In the absence of state leadership in facilitating the widespread adoption of this technology, local governments are pushing for solutions. More than 50 cities and counties have passed ordinances to require new construction to be gas free. Earlier this month, San Francisco released its latest Climate Action Plan, calling for an end to all building emissions by 2040. Berkeley, Oakland, Menlo Park and San José are also exploring how they can decarbonize existing buildings. Regionally, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is considering first-in-the nation rules to require new space and water heaters to be zero-emission in the next decade.
These local initiatives are an important and welcome first step. But a successful transition away from gas will ultimately require more aggressive action from the state — and generous financial support. Public investments in the green economy have paid off before. For example, electric vehicles are now California’s top export. As we look toward another year of record state surpluses, it is critical that Governor Newsom jump-start the market transition to decarbonized buildings with a serious budget investment.
There is no time for the state to wait on decarbonizing buildings. Given that furnaces and water heaters last an average of 15 to 20 years, California needs financial incentives and regulatory backstops to ensure that building owners upgrade their appliances to electric heat pumps the next time their old one fails. By starting the transition to electric buildings sooner, and doing so statewide, we can forestall having to throw away functioning gas appliances by 2045 — or even worse, entering an era of extreme climate change.