US building codes need a major retrofit to meet climate goals and spare consumers

Buildings produce around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

US building codes need a major retrofit to meet climate goals and spare consumers

Buildings produce around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The majority of these emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels for appliances and heating, which accounts for about 12% of total emissions.

One organization that could have helped reduce the numbers mentioned earlier, but didn't, is the International Code Council (ICC). After repealing climate-smart code improvements and disenfranchising local and state government representatives, ICC failed to end fossil fuel reliance in new buildings, which will lead to mounting costs, climate risks and health impacts. Building codes and processes need a major retrofit.

Decarbonizing buildings is key to addressing climate, avoiding higher costs and untenable risks

We need to reduce emissions by at least 80% below 2005 levels by 2050 in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The building sector has a long way to go before reaching those reductions, and new construction techniques are essential for making progress in an affordable way.

Every new building lasts 50 years and leaves a legacy of how much energy it used, how much the consumer costs, and how much pollution it created. Codes impact how safe, healthy, and comfortable the occupants are in the building. They also impact how easy it is to adopt climate and resilience solutions like efficient electric appliances, solar panels, electric vehicles, or back-up batteries. Retrofitting existing equipment is inherently more costly and difficult than building smart from the start.

Each year, climate change increases the number of severe weather events. These events can cause a lot of damage to property. For example, in 2018 the United States had more than $1.6 trillion in losses from natural disasters. If we don't take action, things will only get worse. continuing to use fossil fuels in buildings makes the problem worse by locking in higher emissions and decades of damage. It also makes costs for consumers increase because they have to pay for things like insurance and repairs. Codes that are out of date unfairly burden low-income people, people of color, and communities that are already vulnerable to extreme weather conditions.

We need more efficient buildings, but cannot dig out of the climate hole with efficiency alone.

We need to shift our buildings to be powered by electricity from a clean grid. Rocky Mountain Institute research shows that this is a good idea for both consumers and the climate, because it reduces costs and emissions. Meanwhile, an LBNL analysis found that we need to electrify and improve the efficiency of buildings in order to reduce emissions by up to 78% by 2050. In other words, we need a lot of changes, but current building codes are way behind where they need to be.

Building codes and code processes are fragmented

The U.S. has many different building codes that are set by different states and local governments. There is no federally issued standard, so each state gets to choose which codes to use. FEMA estimates that by 2040, nearly 10 million more buildings will be built using the International Code Council's (ICC) codes.

The ICC's code setting process is time-intensive and has multiple layers. This process results in an updated base code, as well as several appendices which are not included in the base code. These appendices include voluntary "stretch" codes. For states and local governments that adopt the ICC code, the base code is their standard for all new buildings, unless otherwise specified.

The ICC encouraged local governments to get more involved in the code writing process, and local governments responded by voting for several important base code changes that would help achieve climate goals. However, this success was short-lived, as the new code cycle has since rolled around and many of these changes have been undone.

Members of ICC who represent fossil fuel interests and developers lobbied to appeal the climate-friendly improvements and change the voting process. While the ICC rejected the request to repeal efficiency improvements, they repealed all-electric measures. They also changed how future local government voting will work by modifying the IECC development process, which makes it harder for communities to stop fossil fuel expansion in new buildings.

Time for a retrofit

We need to act now to make sure our buildings are prepared for the future. The codes we have right now are not good enough. They don't take into account public health or climate costs. There is no easy fix, but there are some new approaches that could help us change things.

  • The Building Decarbonization Code is a good starting point for introducing codes innovation through competition. The ICC united three competing code-setting entities in 1994, aiming to unify the building code trade. We need to unite building decarbonization experts, architects, and green builders to establish a new code-setting body focused on building decarbonization. This will help us deploy known climate solutions more cheaply.
  • Increase transparency and oversight: If the ICC influences nearly 10 million buildings, investigating their practices and ties to fossil fuel and developer interests may be overdue. A Congressional investigation could identify ICC business practice shortcomings, which would help increase transparency.
  • We need a strong national appliance standard. Federal efforts to improve the efficiency of common appliances and heating and cooling equipment can help rid our buildings of fossil fuels while avoiding arguments between the federal government and state governments about what the standard should be.
  • The government should enact programs that will help get more people to buy all-electric homes. This will create demand for these homes, while also helping to train contractors and other people who work in this industry.
  • If we want our buildings to be our lifeline during emergencies, then we need to prioritize resilience. The entities listed should create complementary programs for solar, storage, and demand response. Green Mountain Power has had success with this, showing that customers can provide grid support when needed (and be compensated for it). Homes outfitted with resilience technologies will help consumers rebound after outages and avoid worst-case scenarios.
  • Governments that are leading the charge to reduce carbon emissions should ensure that their building code officials have enough staff and resources to do their jobs. Officials who enforce the code will also benefit from continuing education and training, and increased vigilance in making sure that buildings are reducing emissions and saving energy.

We need to make sure that all new buildings are built in a way that helps us adapt to the changing climate. This is important because it will help us mitigate global warming and address any inequalities. The people who set building codes need to change with the times, or else they should step aside.

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