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Top Seven Building Decarbonization Wins You May Have Missed in 2022

2022 was another defining year for building decarbonization action across every real estate sector, from weatherizing rural single-family homes to electrifying city skyscrapers to retrofitting affordable multifamily housing. So, as we look ahead to 2023 and the transformation of the buildings sector that needs to take place to heed our planet’s urgent warnings, it’s worth taking stock of the top seven building decarbonization victories and breakthroughs of this past year.

1. US cities and states pass policies to get fossil fuels out of buildings.

The latest IPCC report highlighted building energy codes as the best regulatory tool to reduce emissions from both new and existing buildings and many states put this into action this year. This spring, the Washington State Building Code Council passed the country’s strongest commercial building electrification code. In November, the state’s code council made waves again by voting in favor of a residential code requiring new-home construction to install heat pumps for space and water heating starting in July 2023.

Massachusetts enacted a sweeping climate and energy bill to support its goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The bill includes a pilot program that enables up to 10 municipalities to ban fossil fuels from new construction projects and major renovations. Notably, The Boston City Council voted in favor of New England’s largest city joining the pilot.

Montgomery County, MD, passed an ambitious building decarbonization bill this month making it the first East Coast county to require all-electric space and water heating for almost all new buildings and supercharging the use of highly efficient electric heat pumps and hot water systems starting in 2026.

California’s most recent budget invests $1.4 billion in multi-year funding for equitable building decarbonization. At the city level, Los Angeles will require new buildings to be all-electric after April 1 of next year thanks to leadership from frontline communities.

2. States and public health organizations declare gas appliances are health harming.

California became the first US state to commit to ending the sale of fossil fuel appliances — specifically, furnaces and water heaters — by 2030. RMI’s analysis conservatively estimates that retiring all the state’s fossil fuel furnaces and water heaters starting in 2030 would avert a cumulative total of 154 million metric tons of CO2 emissions by 2045, equal to the annual energy usage of over 19 million homes.

The American Public Health Association became the first US public health organization to declare gas cooking as a public health concern, following in the footsteps of medical organizations, most recently the American Medical Association.

Further supporting the case for getting gas out of our homes and buildings, a jaw-dropping study led by Stanford showed that methane leaking from gas stoves in US homes has a climate impact on par with the CO2 emitted from 500,000 gas-powered cars.

Another study in California found gas stoves in homes are leaking cancer-causing benzene emissions, even when they’re turned off. And even the New York Times joined the induction cooking craze.

3. The Inflation Reduction Act could help transform the US building sector

The passage of the historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) gave an unprecedented injection of over $50 billion into clean energy technologies and improvements that can lower energy bills for Americans. The IRA funding, coupled with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, could reduce buildings sector climate pollution by anywhere from 33 to 100 million metric tons, getting the United States to between 10 and 30 percent of its 2030 goal to cut emissions in half. It’s the biggest investment by a government ever to help make our homes, workplaces, and schools healthier and safer; significantly reduce climate pollution; and prioritize delivery of benefits and new technologies to low-income and environmental justice communities.

Looking to 2023 and beyond, states and cities will need to seize the opportunity to put this funding to work and have the maximum impact on people’s wallets, homes, and the climate.

This month, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the first-ever Federal Building Performance Standard (BPS), setting an ambitious goal to cut energy use and electrify equipment and appliances in 30 percent of federal real estate by 2030. The US government owns more than 1 billion square feet of space across many building types so this leadership will have ripple effects across the buildings industry and help reach President Biden’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions in all federal buildings by 2045.

4. Federal and state governments act to remove hidden embodied carbon in building materials and construction.

In addition to the IRA and federal BPS, the Biden-Harris Administration strengthened its Federal Buy Clean Initiative by prioritizing the purchase of low-carbon construction materials such as green steel and concrete — two of the world’s most frequently used and historically carbon-intensive materials. Bolstered by $5 billion in funding from the IRA, the initiative will cover 98 percent of federally purchased materials while spurring a clean manufacturing resurgence and good-paying jobs.

RMI’s new Roadmap to Reaching Zero Embodied Carbon in Federal Buildings shows how the US government can leverage its immense purchasing power to achieve its Buy Clean goals and bring the embodied carbon in federal buildings down to zero by 2050.

And more states and cities are recognizing embodied carbon as a significant source of climate pollution, passing their own laws in 2022. California signed AB 2446, which requires the state board to develop a framework to measuring and reduce the average carbon intensity of the materials used to construct new buildings by 2025. In New York,  Governor Hochul signed the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act. We expect even more legislative action on embodied carbon from states and cities in 2023.

5. Industry leaders deliver game-changing heat pumps and clean building technologies.

Global heat pump sales jumped by almost 15 percent in 2021, with 2022 sales numbers expected to reach record levels in response to the global energy crisis and the war in Ukraine. Many in the clean energy sphere and beyond would even call 2022 the year of the heat pump. Here are just a few reasons why.

  • Rheem introduced a highly efficient 120-volt heat pump water heater that can be easily installed in homes and plugged into a standard wall socket —a big deal for accelerating adoption.
  • The Department of Energy announced multiple heat pump initiatives and millions in funding to deploy the technology. Its Cold Climate Heat Pump Challenge also made big breakthroughs in lab testing its technology — Trane’s heat pump prototypeperformed in temperatures as low as negative 23 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Cleantech startup Gradient Comfort and HVAC company Midea America won New York’s Clean Heat For All Challenge and are set to electrify 30,000 New York Housing Authority apartments with their innovative heat pump window units. This kind of plug-and-play technology could be a game changer for expanding clean heating and cooling access. It has the potential to scale building decarbonization across the fragmented multifamily sector and bring clean energy benefits to more underserved communities.
  • As of this November, four US states have explicitly called for electrification by setting time-bound heat pump deployment targets that together total well over 12 million new heat pumpsby 2030.
  • The EPA proposed restricting the use of some of the most planet-warming types of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in refrigerators, air conditioners and other products.
6. Commercial buildings gain momentum to switch to all-electric right now.

Commercial buildings make up roughly half of US buildings-sector emissions. Electrification retrofits that remove gas are a key climate solution, but building owners are often uncertain about the economic return these retrofits offer. RMI’s new study helped disprove this notion, showing that there is a cost-effective scenario for electrification today across four major US cities.

Furthermore, skyscrapers make up a significant portion of emissions in cities, but are also complex structures that are difficult to decarbonize. For example, in New York City, 2 percent of buildings account for half of its climate emissions. NYSERDA launched the $50 Million Empire Building Challenge in early 2022 to take this issue head on. Some of the state’s largest real estate owners and developers representing millions of square feet of space have joined the Challenge to advance smart and efficient building operations, clean technologies, and electrification across their portfolios.

To scale the impact of the Empire Building Challenge even further, the Clean Fight accelerator and RMI are managing the $10 million Empire Technology Prize to create a blueprint for decarbonizing large cold-climate buildings in New York and around the world.

7. Investing in electrification over fossil fuel infrastructure becomes a no brainer.

A new gas customer is added to the system every minute in the United States, and existing gas customers are covering their construction costs through hidden subsidies knows as line extension allowances. In another first, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted to eliminate these costly gas line extension subsidies, leading the way to fully decarbonize the state’s building sector, reduce methane pollution, and save Californians money. Colorado and other states have taken steps to reform these subsidies this year, with more to come in 2023.

Looking Forward with Hope

With all of this action to remove fossil fuels from our buildings to make them healthier and safer, we look forward with applied hope. In 2023 and beyond, we’re imagining healthier schools and more clean, efficient affordable housing. We envision greater collaboration and innovation in the construction industry to build right the first time and to retrofit our millions of existing buildings. With health, equity, and high road-jobs as our north stars, we can continue to improve our homes and businesses for the sustainable, comfortable, healthy future we all deserve.