What Does it Take for a City to Decarbonize its Buildings?

Ithaca, New York made headlines recently with its announcement that it would fully decarbonize its buildings. The city’s Energy Efficiency Retrofitting and Thermal Load Electrification Program is part of the Ithaca Green New Deal, which has a goal of carbon neutrality for Ithaca by 2030. In the past several years, a number of other local governments have taken steps toward decarbonizing the building stock by either banning natural gas hookups in new homes, or by amending the building code to require all-electric power sources in new construction. What makes the Ithaca plan particularly striking is that it involves not only prospective bans or directives, but includes the full work of retrofitting existing building stock as well. In that way, it represents an important step forward in the local decarbonization discussion, and an interesting example of a local government taking on the holistic nature of the local decarbonization problem. Buildings are either the number one or number two source of carbon emissions for cities. They are therefore an extremely important component of the decarbonization conversation at the local level, and Ithaca’s plan marks an ambitious step in that direction.


So, as the Onion coverage of Ithaca’s announcement put it“[i]f an East Coast college town can agree on climate action, what’s stopping Congress?” Snark aside, there are of course reasons that the Ithaca endeavor is exciting but not necessarily the first in a wave of municipal decarbonizations. When interviewed, Ithaca’s director of sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres emphasized two main challenges for the program: how do you implement this program and how do you pay for it? That framing highlights two main components of answering the question of whether cities can decarbonize. But it omits another important threshold question, which is—are you allowed to do it at all?


The logistics and programmatic details of a decarbonization plan will of course be a challenge for Ithaca and any other city hoping to engage in this kind of work. The basic contours of any such plan, however, are likely to depend at least in part on electrifying building components and appliances. As the electric grid is itself decarbonized, shifting building components from natural gas to electricity is a necessary part of realizing those gains. For instance, in Ithaca, the process of decarbonizing will “involve looking at everything from how a building is heated to what appliances it uses, with the aim of moving away from the consumption of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas.” Local governments wanting to decarbonize in that way will have to first contend with the question of local authority, or whether they have the power to take these kinds of actions in the first instance.


The relevant laws vary by state, but in many places, local governments do have broad authority over and latitude regarding building codes. Some possible sources of the necessary power to enact mandates or changes to building codes are general grants of home rule authority, express grants of authority by the state, local police power authority, and/or local zoning authority. Using these forms of local power, a number of cities have taken steps toward building electrification in recent years; other cities like New York City, and states such as Washington, are considering passing these kinds of laws as well. But, as in many other areas of local action, industry-led preemption of local authority by the state has been swift. In many states, local power is being stripped away when it comes to taking certain actions to diminish carbon emissions. For instance, in the past year, bills in twenty states were introduced to strip local authority over fuels used to power residences and other buildings. These bills, which now exist in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming, are aimed directly at local action to reform the building code or impose bans on natural gas hook-ups. For those local governments in states not supportive of local decarbonization efforts, therefore, the ability to engage in the necessary work may limited or threatened.


Ithaca’s new plan is all the more interesting when viewed through the lens of these potential limits on local authority. While part of Ithaca’s plan involves a prohibition on use of natural gas or propane in new construction, it also relies heavily on conducting a detailed assessment of the decarbonization needs for each building, followed by the provision of financial assistance to homeowners in retrofitting their home. This answer to the question of both implementation and financing may be a fairly preemption-safe path forward for those local governments who can manage it. The prospect of financing for retrofits may also point to a role for the federal government in supporting local decarbonization efforts. Federal financial support to local governments in paying for the necessary building modifications can help to move those projects along, even in states where preemption efforts may make certain kinds of mandates untenable.


So, what does it take for a local government to decarbonize its building supply? Authority, implementation will and resources, and, likely, lots of money. All cities can take steps to decarbonize, including making improvements in energy efficiency in a variety of ways, and focusing on municipally-owned buildings as a first step. But many cities may be prevented from taking on some of the building electrification steps that will be needed to work holistic change. Thinking about which cities are well-positioned for decarbonization efforts—and which would benefit most from federal support—requires a particularized look at local authority for decarbonization.