Inside the Climate Battle Quietly Raging about US Homes

Away from the headlines, there’s an important fight happening that is pitting real estate developers and utilities against efforts to make America’s new homes more climate friendly.

Some challenges to US climate action are obvious — like when Donald Trump boasts about leaving the international Paris agreement and rolling back pollution rules.

But many more play out behind the scenes. One of those is the battle over efforts to make America’s new homes and buildings more energy-efficient.

photo of houses.
In the US, the energy used in buildings accounts for more than one-third of heat-trapping emissions, and reducing those emissions is key to the nation’s climate progress. Photo by Design Pics / Alamy Stock Photo.

On one side are the city and state officials trying to go greener, and on the other are real estate developers and the natural gas industry.

The International Code Council, which like the World Series largely concerns Americans, met this week on updating the baseline codes that most states and cities adopt for new buildings. The council is reviewing about two dozen proposals that would, for example, require builders to install electrical outlets near gas stoves that may one day be replaced with electric ones; and to wire enough power to garages where people may one day want to plug in electric cars.

In the US, the energy used in buildings accounts for more than one-third of heat-trapping emissions, and reducing those emissions is key to the nation’s climate progress.

With the stakes high, climate advocates last year launched a campaign to make sure that more climate-minded officials — the ones that set energy and environment rules, in addition to those who enforce code — were involved in the normally obscure process.

The plan worked, and a slate of efficiency measures was approved.

Developers and gas utilities have not been pleased with the outcome.

The industries’ trade groups are appealing, calling the measures costly and premature. They are challenging the government officials’ online votes, saying the new voters were unfairly recruited and go against what committee members and in-person voters decided.

“The developers … they clearly wanted our point of view to be dismissed,” said Stacey Miller, the sustainability program coordinator for Minneapolis and a first-time voter. “But in fact, I feel like we’re the strongest advocates for the public interest. That’s our job as government officials — unlike for-profit or trade organizations where there are other motivations.”

Craig Drumheller, assistant vice-president of construction codes and standards for the National Association of Homebuilders, in an interview said there were “holes in the process that got taken advantage of, and those holes need to be plugged.”

In a council hearing on Monday, the Leading Builders Association — another developer trade group — argued that governmental members were “recruited by special interests for the sole purpose of advancing their agenda”.

The gas trade groups — the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association (APGA) — both argued that consumers want to keep natural gas because it is affordable and reliable.

Yet none of the proposals would ban gas appliances. They would only make buildings ready for electric ones, in case future homeowners choose them or future policies require them.

Efficiency experts said the industries are up in arms because they fear losing their historical influence over the process for setting model building codes. The New York Times last year revealed a “secret deal” that gives developers an advantage in code-setting.

“Appeals have happened before, but never like this,” said Kim Cheslak, director of the New Buildings Institute.

The final decision for most of the measures is now before the council’s board of directors, and a decision could come later this week or next week, the code council said.

Lauren Urbanek, a senior energy policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said while the cities are the ones using the codes, it seems like the board of directors “take the position more often of the builders.”

Madison Neal, a spokeswoman for the council, defended its process as “open, transparent and responsive.” She said anyone can propose code changes but only governmental representatives “who have no financial or business interest in the outcome” make the final vote.

No matter how the model codes turn out, cities are increasingly making plans to shrink building emissions. In 2017, when President Trump issued an executive order that promoted fossil fuels, the US Conference of Mayors responded with its support for climate efforts and said boosting building efficiency is a key way cities can help.

The Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, is also promising to jumpstart efficiency improvements with a plan to retrofit 4 million buildings in his first term.

Alongside Miller, the Minneapolis official, were government workers from San Diego, Boston, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Seattle, Honolulu, Charlotte, and Orlando, as well as small cities like Edina, Minnesota, she said.

“There are few things that are more impactful than energy code,” Miller said. “So we see this as critical, it’s why we took the time to participate in the process.”

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