Coming Soon to Your Home: Cleaner Air and Climate Action
Update, 09/04/2019: Since this blog was published, the city of San Luis Obispo in southern California passed a similar ordinance, mandating new buildings to be constructed with all electric power. That ordinance allows developers to pay an in-lieu fee to install gas hookups, but still requires new buildings to be wired for future electric power. The fee will help fund electricity retrofits to existing buildings. This blog will continue to be updated as other cities implement similar ordinances.
Original post, 08/23/2019: The city of Berkeley, California, has opted to take one giant leap into a clean energy future – and is being closely watched by cities across the world.
The city council voted unanimously in July to ban natural gas in new buildings, making it the first city in the United States to do so. The ban will apply first to all new low-rise buildings in 2020, and will then expand to other building types.
Berkeley’s historic transition is poised to have ripple effects among cities also looking to cut gas as a source of emissions. Fifty other cities in California, including Los Angeles, are preparing to adopt similar ordinances for electrifying new buildings. Further afield, the mayors of Seattle, London, Paris, and several other major world cities have pledged similar legislation.
“Berkeley has created a blueprint on how other cities could do this at a local level,” says Matt Vespa, an Earthjustice attorney specializing in clean energy litigation. “Banning gas connections in new homes is a prime example of how cities can take action to address the climate crisis.”
The move is part of Berkeley’s plan to significantly reduce its emissions before 2050. In 2016, gas was responsible for 73% of the emissions that came from Berkeley’s buildings. A first step in tackling this problem is to prevent that number from going up, and slashing emissions from natural gas now. City council representative Kate Harrison, who authored the ordinance, said the ban would prevent creating significant new greenhouse emissions, and allow the city to focus on other critical sources of emissions, such as existing buildings and transportation.
“Climate change is an existential threat to our city, our homes, and our future,” said Councilmember Harrison after the vote was taken. “It is time to take aggressive action to reduce our emissions across all sectors.”
Gas has managed to escape headlines as a large source of climate change. As the modern standard for heating homes and cook stoves, gas’s share of carbon emissions is sizable: On a national scale, it accounts for 89% of emissions that come from commercial and residential buildings, dwarfing coal’s footprint in that area. In California, gas is responsible for nearly 25% of the state’s total climate pollution. Cutting reliance on gas combustion is critical if California is to meet its ambitious climate goals set by former governor Jerry Brown in 2018, of slashing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045.
Fossil fuel companies have invested heavily in selling gas as a “bridge fuel” to slowly transition the economy toward clean energy. This narrative is entirely misleading: While burning gas emits less carbon than coal, the only way to get it — through drilling, hydraulic fracking, and transport via pipelines — results in a leakage of methane, a gas that is 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 20 year period. A recent study has further shattered the myth of mitigating climate change with gas, showing that methane leakage from pipelines is so toxic that it may actually erase the benefits of burning gas over coal. Gas is a dirty fuel.
Inside the home, cooking with a common gas burner releases toxic indoor air pollutants like formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. A kitchen that is not properly ventilated, or that uses inefficient appliances, can reach air quality levels beyond Environmental Protection Agency standards for the outdoors. Depending on where one lives, gas hookups also pose a serious risk during a natural disaster: Earthquake-prone Berkeley rests on the volatile Hayward fault, increasing the risk of an explosive gas line break during a major quake.
“It feels very historic,” says Sasan Saadat, a research and policy analyst at Earthjustice who worked closely with Councilmember Harris to build public support for the ordinance. “One day we’re going to find it crazy that we did this, that we snaked fossil fuels in our homes, schools, and places of work. When that day comes, it will be in no small part due to the courage of a few cities that took unprecedented action to accelerate the clean energy transition.”
If it takes a village to pass a bold citywide ordinance aimed at combating climate change, there could hardly be a better place than Berkeley. Concerned residents turned out in force at the bill’s public hearing.
Councilmember Harrison presented on the economic and environmental rationale for ditching gas. She noted that electrification actually decreases the cost of constructing new housing since it’s substantially cheaper to construct buildings connected to a single energy source and thereby avoid gas hookups.
She also addressed the emotional attachment some cooks have for gas stoves by giving a live demo where she melted chocolate on an induction stove. The stove produces heat more evenly than a gas burner, and is also safer. Harrison drove the point home by placing a sheet of paper between the burner and the pot of chocolate, where it did not burn. Induction stoves are also more efficient, as they are incapable of producing heat when a pot is removed.
The ordinance passed unanimously after that, bypassing the usual proceedings of a second hearing date.
“Kate’s presentation was a point-by-point rebuttal of the argument that gas should be a staple of modern buildings,” recalls Vespa. “She discredited every concern with evidence, and received a standing ovation. The council was so in favor that it passed the ordinance right there.”
In addition to support from Earthjustice and several other environmental organizations, the effort was supported by building developers, public health experts, residents and, in a sign of the future of California’s energy portfolio, even Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility supplier for 16 million customers. The ordinance received zero public comments against it, and was endorsed by the chair of the California Energy Commission, David Hochschild, who is also a Berkeley resident. The overall community support was “very positive,” said Councilmember Harrison.
As time runs out for humans to slowly scale back their reliance on fossil fuels, the hope is that Berkeley’s phase-out of natural gas will become a playbook for other cities ready to make bold moves. “This first-in-the-nation ordinance dispels the notion that fossil fuels belong in our buildings,” says Saadat. “All communities deserve homes, schools, and places of work that don’t pollute our air or destabilize the climate. Berkeley has taken a huge step toward making that a reality.”