Buildings and the construction industry account for 35% of all emissions in the U.S., so it’s clear that any decarbonization plan can’t ignore them. That’s why Joe Biden’s climate plan includes massive promises to make sure “that all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation.”
But a new report suggests that the plan wouldn’t deliver on Biden’s own targets. The report, released by Colorado-based the energy efficiency research organization Carbon Switch on Tuesday, found that Biden’s plan could cut 17.6 billion U.S. tons of carbon emissions by 2050. But though that’s far better than Trump’s nonexistent building emissions reduction plan, the report shows it’s still far from enough.
A key promise in Biden’s climate plan commits to weatherizing 2 million homes. Carbon Switch plugged that pledge into a model created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which shows what emissions cuts could be delivered by changes to U.S. homes.
“I looked at what that commitment would actually do, and it turns out it wouldn’t do much compared to what we need,” Michael Thomas, the founder and head of research at Carbon Switch who authored the report, said.
Biden has often said that he’s committed to the Paris Climate Accord. Yet according to the Regulatory Assistance Project, to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), between now and 2050, every single home in America will need to be made 50% more efficient. That would mean weatherizing 2.6 million homes per year for the next 30 years. Biden’s pledge to weatherize 2 million over four years of presidency would deliver just a fraction of that. The climate platform includes a promise to “the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035.”
It also falls short of the campaign’s own stated goals of reducing “the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035.” Using the NREL model, Thomas found that meeting that goal would require making 5 million residential buildings 50% more efficient every year. That’s 10 times the number of weatherizations per year the plan commits to.
Even Biden’s imperfect promise to weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years would not be easy to achieve, as it would require Congress to back and fund it. But if he achieved it, the report found it could lower building emissions by another cumulative 183 million U.S. tons by 2050.
Biden has committed to other building-related targets which would require Congressional support, too. For example, Biden wants the U.S. to sign onto an international agreement to lower the emissions of the refrigerant and cooling sector. Doing so could cut emissions by a cumulative 10.5 billion U.S. tons by 2050 according to Thomas’ calculations, but it would require Senate ratification.
Other buildings-related emissions cuts could be delivered without Congressional support through executive orders and the Department of Energy, including introducing new appliance efficiency standards and lighting efficiency standards, which could reduce emissions by 3.5 billion metric tons and 1.9 billion U.S. tons respectively. But the report notes that even those policies are likely to face legal challenges from industry representatives, and if the Trump administration succeeds in nominating another conservative justice to the Supreme Court, those challenges could be heard by an unsympathetic, pro-business courtroom.
To push these climate policies through in our current political landscape, Biden will need a broad base of support on Capitol Hill. But if it’s support Biden wants, he might have been better off adopting a bolder plan like the Green New Deal, which includes a target of weatherizing 8 million homes per year for 10 years. It would affect every home in the U.S. by 2030. Adopting that more ambitious policy platform would result in more homes becoming energy efficient, which would also lower Americans’ energy bills. According to the analysis, Biden’s weatherization plan would create 109,860 jobs, whereas the Green New Deal would create 10 million.
“I can’t help but oscillate between despair and frustration with the lack of imagination and ambition in this plan,” Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center in the Weitzman School of Design who did not work on the report, said. “Sure, take care of the low-hanging fruit that Presidents Clinton and Obama left for you on climate. Then, for all our sakes, think about extending your grasp an inch or two higher.”
Thomas says it’s likely that Biden limited the scope of his plan so that it could enjoy support from both parties.
“It’s a bipartisan approach, it’s trying to propose things that they think they would actually pass,” he said, but he also noted the Green New Deal could be much more effective. “I think we do need to be thinking about is this investment that could create the best economic opportunity in history.”
That’s especially true now due to the economic instability and unemployment crisis the U.S. has seen amid the covid-19. That has also put a crunch on finances, putting people at risk of having their utilities shut off. A more aggressive stimulus and approach to weatherization could help with both unemployment and easing the burden of utility bills.