Cities can lead the fight for a Green New Deal

Illustration of Berkeley City Council
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Cities are on the frontlines of global warming. Although cities cannot reverse this global crisis on their own, they have a number of important tools they can use in the fight against climate change. They play a big role in sectors, such as buildings and transportation, that are directly or indirectly responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. They are also more agile than higher levels of government.

In 2018, Berkeley became the first city in California — the second in the country — to declare a climate emergency. In the time since, 23 other California cities and counties have followed us in passing such declarations. By declaring climate “emergencies,” cities have begun to urgently rethink and reconfigure their infrastructure.

This year, I led my colleagues in unanimously passing a first-of-its-kind ordinance halting the proliferation of natural gas building emissions. This ordinance highlights the emergency need for state and regional assistance in converting existing buildings. The ban applies broadly to all new building projects that apply for land use entitlement after Jan. 1, 2020.

The ordinance is premised upon other key local climate actions, namely the rise of East Bay Community Energy, or EBCE. This is a public entity charged with procuring very low or zero-emissions electricity, primarily from renewable sources, on behalf of residents and businesses. EBCE provides Berkeley and other East Bay residents with a minimum of 85% carbon-free electricity. In addition, the legislation is a response to the innovation of an emerging coalition of climate-conscious engineers, architects, energy modeling consultants and developers who are leading a revolution in all-electric building design and construction across all building sectors.

Cities have substantial jurisdiction over carbon-emitting buildings — they adopt and amend building codes. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that buildings represent 25% of statewide emissions. One-third of these building emissions comes from electricity production and another two-thirds from on-site combustion of fossil fuels, namely natural gas. Unsurprisingly, a substantial portion of Bay Area cities’ GHG emissions comes from natural gas used in buildings: 27% in Berkeley, 33% in San Jose and 35% in San Francisco.

We simply cannot meet our necessary emissions reduction targets if we do not rapidly eliminate new fossil fuel infrastructure from new buildings. We also must provide incentives to property owners and renters to wean existing buildings off fossil fuels. Natural gas contributes to global warming when burned, but even unburned natural gas (methane) leaks from fracking wells, pipelines and piping in our homes and businesses. Methane has 84 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. In addition to the clear environmental benefits associated with phasing out gas in new buildings, there are substantial indoor and outdoor air quality, seismic and fire safety, economic and quality of life benefits to an all-electric design.

Berkeley has paved the way for similar actions to be taken across the country. Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Menlo Park and Brookline, Massachusetts have all taken steps toward enacting natural gas bans of their own. It also appears that this ordinance may help drive a natural gas phaseout at the state level. David Hochschild, California Energy Commission chair and Berkeley resident, supports the Berkeley City Council’s ordinance. In fact, Hochschild compared the ordinance to other Berkeley legislative firsts, stating that similar ordinances could be adopted by “other cities, then go up to the state level and then go to the national level … That’s how change happens.”

New buildings represent low hanging fruit because developers can save money by not having to plumb for gas and avoid paying for stranded assets down the line. On the other hand, retrofitting existing buildings, which are responsible for nearly a third of Berkeley’s emissions, presents one of the most complex social equity, policy and engineering challenges.

We currently lack creative solutions to convert century-old Victorian homes, schools and high-rise apartment buildings. Each building presents a unique set of architectural, engineering and financial circumstances that will have to be carefully considered. We also need to consider the impacts on current residents while undertaking this important work.

The immediate next step will be working closely with utilities and regional, state and federal agencies to deliver electrification rebates and other incentives. Additionally, we will need to coordinate retrofits with utility infrastructure upgrades and the decommissioning of the natural gas system over the coming years. Approximately 5% of gas appliances need to be replaced each year; we need to be ready to move off of fossil fuels as that happens. Cities working in conjunction with other levels of government have to be prepared to make the transition from gas to electric as painless as possible.

If approached thoughtfully and funded with sufficient resources, retrofitting existing buildings across the country represents an immense opportunity to create well-paid jobs while reducing GHG emissions, air pollution and economic inequality.

The 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report established that incremental GHG emissions reduction strategies will not be sufficient if humans are to maintain a habitable planet — governments across the planet must begin implementing “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

The scale of change needed is global and will require commitment, coordination and resources from national and state governments. Despite inaction, municipalities, the most basic unit of government, must continue to lead the fight for the Green New Deal.

Kate Harrison is a councilmember for the city of Berkeley.