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.
A tattered U.S. flag waves in the wind as construction workers build new homes in an area of Breezy Point in Queens, New York.
A tattered U.S. flag waves in the wind as construction workers build new homes in an area of Breezy Point in Queens, New York.
Lucas Jackson via Reuters

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 majority 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 deliver 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.”

Construction cranes are seen in downtown Los Angeles.
Construction cranes are seen in downtown Los Angeles.
Lucy Nicholson via Reuters

‘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’re talking about fossil fuels in buildings.”

- Amy Turner, Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

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.

“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,” she said. “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.

People sleep at a cooling shelter set up during an unprecedented heat wave in Portland, Oregon, on June 27.
People sleep at a cooling shelter set up during an unprecedented heat wave in Portland, Oregon, on June 27.
Maranie Staab via Reuters

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 speculate 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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