Opinion by Dave Reed
“Slow and steady wins the race,” goes the saying. But when it comes to climate change, we’re in a race against time. Recent reports by the United Nations and others show how far behind we already are. We need to be moving fast and steady.
Consensus is emerging that human society needs to be “carbon neutral” — in effect, producing no fossil-fuel emissions — by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 2050 may seem like a long time off, but squeezing all the carbon emissions out of our economy is a tall order. It’s going to require ramping up our efforts, and sustaining and ratcheting up those efforts year after year, in order to bring greenhouse-gas emissions down to zero.
To its credit, Carbondale has been demonstrating climate leadership for at least the past decade. The town has set a goal of carbon-free electricity by 2030 and has made changes to its building code to drive emissions reductions and encourage solar power. Our town now boasts more than one megawatt of local solar production, including a solar-powered high school and community center.
Last Tuesday night, Oct. 25, the Carbondale trustees took a series of additional bold steps to pick up the pace and put the town on the path to zero by 2050. The specifics may sound wonky, but this is the kind of strategic, systemic action that will drive real change.
First, the trustees formally adopted a plan they’ve been considering for the past year, which directs the town to step up its building codes for new construction every two to three years so that, by 2030, every new building permitted by the town will be required to be net-zero. That means all new buildings will be all-electric and will get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. As a consequence, new gas hookups will be banned by 2030.
In keeping with that framework, the trustees also voted to incorporate the 2018 International Green Construction Code into the town’s building code. Changes include increased energy-efficiency and renewable-energy requirements and a mandate that new buildings be “electric ready.”
The second big move by the trustees last week was to give the green light to Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) and the Environmental Board to develop a similar roadmap to make all existing buildings in the town net-zero by 2050.
This is a much bigger deal, because the buildings that exist now will account for the lion’s share of our emissions over the next few decades. Moreover, zeroing out emissions in existing buildings is harder and will take longer — hence the 2050 goal.
It’s relatively easy (and it doesn’t cost much more) to make a building net-zero from the start; with existing buildings, it’s more cost-effective to switch from gas to electric over time, as heating systems and water heaters are due for replacement. These big-ticket items have long replacement cycles — 15 to 30 years — which is why we need to start dialing up our codes now, to ensure that virtually all replacements are electric within a very few years.
Another ongoing challenge — and opportunity — will be to make the buildings themselves more energy-efficient. Jeff Dickinson of Biospaces Energy Consulting, who is advising the town on its climate actions along with CLEER, lists efficiency as one of the three key strategies for eliminating emissions from buildings. A more efficient building uses less energy, and that means less need to burn fossil fuels or build more electricity supply; it can also make electrification of the building less expensive.
You’ll notice that these measures mainly address the built environment. Reaching zero emissions in our electric grid and our transportation system are separate challenges. But buildings and building codes are where local jurisdictions like Carbondale have decision-making power and where they can make the greatest difference on emissions reduction.
The future is going to be electric, and that’s a good thing. Heating, cooling and hot water will be supplied by efficient electric heat pumps. We’ll cook with electricity too, eliminating unhealthy combustion emissions. Our vehicles will plug into home and workplace charging ports rather than filling up at gas stations. The electricity to power all of this will come from a 100% carbon-free grid, if not from solar panels on your roof.
Many forces will move us toward this electric future: the superiority of electric technologies; efficiency and cost savings; health benefits (think of the tailpipe emissions our kids won’t have to breathe when we’ve switched to electric school buses!); and, of course, the overriding urgency of addressing climate change.
The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will dangle a number of highly attractive financial carrots to incentivize this transition. The Carbondale trustees’ actions last week will introduce some gentle sticks to the local equation. This is all to the good. Our town is on the path to doing its part in addressing one of the most pressing problems of our time.
Dave Reed is CLEER’s communications director.