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"Equitable" Decarbonization--for Marketing Purposes Only?

(03/2022) Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from existing buildings have gained momentum throughout governmental agencies in California. If accomplished, the transition could bring health and comfort benefits along with climate change mitigation. However, the costly, involved process of household decarbonization could also increase displacement, homelessness, foreclosure and gentrification in already burdened Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Recognizing these downsides, many governmental agencies have dubbed planning process as, “equitable” building decarbonization. Local Clean Energy Alliance (LCEA) has joined with other California environmental justice organizations in advocacy efforts with governmental agencies to ensure that the “equitable” is more than just a marketing ploy.

LCEA was first recruited to advise cities on efforts to pass ordinances that would eliminate GHG emissions in all new buildings. Our work on energy democracy informed us about the many threats to frontline and other vulnerable communities in the subsequent effort to decarbonize existing buildings.

Eliminating GHG emissions from buildings requires at minimum replacing all gas-burning appliances: stoves, furnaces, water heaters, etc, with electric appliances. For many households, that process alone is too costly and can result in higher utility bills, unless more efficient and expensive electric appliances are purchased.

Decarbonization should also include energy efficiency upgrades to building infrastructures, walls, windows, etc, which can significantly reduce utility bills, and installation of solar and, if possible, battery storage to provide the extra electricity to run the appliances and resilience during power shut-offs. The average total cost for complete building decarbonization is over $35,000!

That cost, as well as the housing disruption that electrification and energy efficiency processes can cause are at the root of threats to BIPOC and other low income residents in California. Our recent work with a statewide coalition of environment justice organizations, Building Equity, Energy and Power (BEEP), resulted in the identification of many such threats and recommendations for how to avoid or mitigate those threats. Low income tenants are particularly at risk, since they are subject to rent increases and eviction, both lawful and unlawful, and are without financial resources to deal with those threats.

The California Air Resources Board is responsible for developing a scoping plan for decarbonizing existing buildings as part of the effort to achieve the state’s ambitious GHG reduction goals; reducing emission 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality (no net emissions) by 2045. The Board has broad powers to create mandates to support implementation of the Scoping Plan. They also have an Environmental Justice Advisory Committee that can make recommendations about the Scoping Plan to the Board.

A recent meeting between BEEP representatives and CARB staff to discuss the recommendations on the Scoping Plan that had been submitted by BEEP, proved to be not very productive and warned that CARB would not be accountable for making sure the building decarbonization process is, indeed, equitable.