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RMI Awarded $8 Million to Accelerate Carbon-Free US Buildings

The buildings where we live, work, and go to school have long been overlooked in terms of their contribution to global climate change. In all, buildings are responsible for more than 35 percent of the United States’ total carbon emissions. The gas burned in these buildings is a major contributor to climate change and a threat to public health. And while the electricity system is getting cleaner, the trend for fossil fuels in buildings is currently moving in the wrong direction: our gas distribution system continues to expand, with a new gas customer is added roughly every minute in the United States.

It’s time for big change across the buildings sector. This has been recognized by President-Elect Joe Biden, who has elevated the issue to national importance with an ambitious plan to retrofit 4 million buildings in four years and invest in electrification as part of a sweeping green stimulus. But that is just the beginning. We must rapidly transition 70 million existing buildings to operate without fossil fuels, while ensuring new buildings are all-electric and built with low-carbon materials.

Now, thanks to a generous gift from the Bezos Earth Fund, we at RMI will dramatically accelerate our Carbon-Free Buildings campaign to advocate for and support the adoption of climate-aligned policies while working with industry to accelerate retrofits. This will help us achieve what the climate demands: a 50 percent sector-wide emissions reduction by 2030 while improving air quality and health.

RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings team will receive $8 million from the Bezos Earth Fund to work with a coalition of partners in key states to adopt climate-aligned policies and renovate their existing buildings stock. Transforming a $1-trillion-a-year industry will require additional support from governments, NGOs, and the private sector, but these funds are an important catalyst at a critical time.

As we enter the decisive decade for climate action, it’s impossible for individual states or the nation as a whole to achieve the necessary emissions reductions without a plan to aggressively transition buildings from fossil fuels to clean electricity. Homes and buildings will need to be all-electric, efficient, and grid-interactive, which will lead to cleaner air and more comfortable spaces. This is essential for the climate and the economy: a growing body of research shows that electrification is the lowest-cost path to decarbonizing the building sector and limiting warming to 1.5°C, as the latest climate science prescribes.

Thanks to recent technological advancements and the ever-cleaner electric grid, modern heat pumps are more efficient and effective than ever. In fact, installing a heat pump reduces carbon emissions today in roughly 99 percent of US households. These improvements are bringing down costs as well. We recently analyzed the cost of building a new, single-family home in seven US cities and found that the all-electric home was cheaper than building with gas in every instance.

Eliminating fossil fuels from buildings has the added benefit of safeguarding public health. Buildings are one of the top sources of early deaths due to outdoor combustion pollution in the United States, according to recent research by MIT. Decades of scientific research shows that burning gas indoors has significant negative impacts on air quality and asthma rates in children. Gas stoves emit numerous pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, both of which have been linked to poor respiratory and cardiovascular health.

The effects of this pollution are felt disproportionately by disadvantaged populations and communities of color, who often live in smaller, more crowded spaces and closer to major polluters like power plants or factories, compounding health risks.

Local leaders across the United States have begun to acknowledge these risks and work to rectify them. With more than 30 California cities leading the way, several states have already taken steps to encourage all-electric new buildings. Regulators in key states like Massachusetts, New York, Colorado, and California are reexamining the role of gas utilities in a carbon-free future. And public health experts are engaging with air quality officials to emphasize the risk of burning fossil fuels indoors. These efforts are important first steps toward the much larger transformation of the built environment that is needed.

As we work to spur this transformation, our expanded campaign will center on a few key priorities:

  • Advocate for policies, including all-electric new construction, phase-out of gas appliances, and wind down of gas infrastructure.
  • Work with states, industry, and multi-family affordable housing owners to retrofit our homes and other buildings, starting with the communities most in need, as we are piloting with our REALIZE California program.
  • Ensure this transition empowers local communities and leads to sustainable job creation.

There’s substantial work to be done, but we are excited to build on what we’ve learned and catalyze a new era of healthy, affordable, pollution-free buildings. We are grateful for the support of the Bezos Earth Fund, which will help us accelerate these efforts.