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Can Middle America Afford Climate Change Solutions?

With some caveats, many Americans will be able to afford to move to a carbon-free life

Incremental changes made over time can make a carbon-free life possible. Illustration by David Kaiser.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have 12 years before irreversible climate change occurs. That means that if the United States wants to avoid this situation, everyone reading this article (and many more) must decarbonize as quickly as possible. And we must do this with the least negative effect on the economy and our daily lives as possible. Can we even afford it? In a word, maybe.

Let’s focus for the time being on residential energy use, and ignore the changes that will be required for industry, commercial buildings, and for-profit transit. As long as a homeowner plans ahead of time, and selects premium, efficient equipment at the right times, it would be possible to make the switch to near-zero carbon consumption over the span of 12 years.

However, without constant vigilance, sound planning, and implementation as household products die and are replaced, the full cost of decarbonization will go up dramatically because the cost to decarbonize would no longer be incremental.

For example, suppose I am forced to replace my water heater sometime in the next 12 years. Replacing it using the carbon-reduction approach would mean buying a heat-pump water heater. What if I decided not to buy the heat-pump water heater, but a more conventional (and cheaper) model that didn’t do anything to lower my carbon footprint?

Ten years later, I might realize, “Whoops! I should have decarbonized my home because climate change is happening.” Now, the water heater with a lifetime of 15-plus years would have to be decommissioned early, thus incurring the full cost of the heat-pump water heater rather than just the incremental cost. This additional cost makes it less likely that I would actually implement a decarbonization strategy because it is less financially viable.

Adding up the costs of incremental change

Assuming I start today with a decarbonization goal in mind, what would it cost to reduce my daily home carbon consumption dramatically over the span of 12 years? I have a suburban, 3,000-square-foot house built in the early 1990s. It was pretty much an energy hog when I got it, so much so that the previous owner vacated the premises partly to escape the high utility bills and discomfort.

So how much will it cost, in a relatively expensive area, to retrofit my energy usage to near zero-carbon? Upon doing some energy modeling using my 10 years of experience in the industry, here is roughly what it would take in incremental costs to achieve a decarbonized, climate-friendly, residential home and transportation (replacement upon equipment failure).

Single Family in Suburbs

Single Family in Rural

Townhouse in Suburbs

Townhouse in Urban

Apartment in Urban

Conditioned space (sq. ft.)






Attic air-sealing and R-60 attic insulation –






High-efficiency LED light bulbs






Tier 1 CEE appliances (most efficient Energy Star appliances)






Heat-pump water heater (EF* greater than 2.5)






Encapsulated (air-sealed) ducts






Inverter-driven, high-efficiency heat pump (20+ SEER**, 11+ HSPF**)






Good performance dual-pane windows or low-e storm windows






Home air-sealing (baseboards, penetrations, walls, foundation)






Transportation (electric vehicles and charger)






Rooftop solar












Annual cost (assuming 12 years)






Annual defrayed utility costs






Annual defrayed transportation costs






Net Annual Cost






Net Monthly Cost






*Efficiency Factor (EF) is a measure of hot water heating efficiency

**Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) are measures of cooling and heating efficiency respectively.

*** Costs for solar panels in urban apartment units were not included, due to the limited energy density of available roof space relative to the energy usage of all the floors of the building. Urban areas where buildings are over 10 stories tall are generally going to have to rely on the greening of the grid and public transit in addition to the improved efficiency of the buildings to reach net-zero carbon. Not part of this scope.

If someone were buying a new house, they’d likely be paying less of this cost, as some of these measures—such as attic air sealing, high-efficiency bulbs, air-sealed ducts, and good quality windows—may be required by code. However, with an existing house and existing cars, people have to make up for previously inefficient construction practices.

Working change into the budget

When the median national salary is $47,000 per year, that’s effectively $35,000 after taxes (assuming a 25% tax rate), or $2,900 per month. That money must cover all expenses—housing, food, healthcare, transportation, kids’ activities, you-name-it. Whether this household can afford the extra expense of decarbonization would depend on location (urban, suburban, and home type), income, and the number of wage-earning people there are living there.

It is essentially between 2% and 11% of what the average wage-earner’s pay. People who are earning median wages or less would probably feel that they do not have enough monthly budget flexibility for an extra $55 to $311 outflow.

Some of these costs will come down over time, especially electric cars. Batteries are the most expensive part of the car, and the industry is rapidly changing and improving. Maybe with the right financing options, including 20-year paybacks instead of 12 years, and government incentives, it might allow for getting the carbon benefit now but paying less monthly for a longer period of time. Cue some happy bank executives.

At the end of the day, people like me who want to slow or halt climate change are asking everyone to substitute some current costs with another one. If one were implementing such a plan on their own, or taking the situation a bit further to a government-imposed carbon tax on fossil fuel, people are first going to scale back their leisure and entertainment activities before they start cutting back on necessities.

However, if a family is lower on the economic ladder, they may not be taking any of these steps toward decarbonization, thereby making the cost of decarbonizing the full cost rather than incremental cost. These families are less likely to have any entertainment budget to dip into in the first place.

Wealthy people may buy smaller boats or fewer boats to defray additional energy costs, or they may very quickly scale up their energy efficiency and renewable energy purchasing. If the ultimate aim is to make decarbonizing as widespread as possible across the entire economy, and I argue that it would, then people on one side of this median income divide are going to need more incentives to implement this plan.

So, yes, with the right choices, the right incentives from the government, the right life situation, it could be possible for the median American to afford climate change solutions. In other words, maybe.

David Kaiser trained as a mechanical engineer and has spent his 14-year career in building energy efficiency, including energy modeling, contracting for Energy Star for New Homes, HERS Rater, LEED for Homes Green Rater, energy auditor on residential, multifamily, and commercial buildings, and now as a green and energy code permit reviewer for Washington, D.C. He asked that editing credit be given to Katherine Kaiser, PhD.


  1. CollieGuy | | #1

    Hopefully, the situation won't be quite as daunting nor costly as what's described here. FWIW, our home is a fifty-one year old, 2,900 sq. ft. Cape Cod, and our winters are colder than those of Buffalo, NY. This past year, we consumed 9,000 kWh of electricity for space heating, domestic hot water and all plug loads, plus an additional 200 litres of fuel oil for backup heat, and roughly 50 litres of propane to operate our tumble dryer. We pay an extra 2-cents per kWh or $180.00 a year for 100 per cent renewable power courtesy of Bullfrog Power, principally wind, but also solar, biogas and low-impact hydro, and that makes its operation largely carbon-neutral without incurring a high upfront cost (solar won't work for us due to the orientation of our home and heavy shading by mature trees).

    I've just replaced one of our two ductless mini-splits with a new cold climate heat pump that, on average, will provide us with a little over four kWh(e) of heat for every one kWh consumed, and that should theoretically trim our home's energy requirements by a 1,000 kWh or more each year. This unit reportedly supplies 100 per cent of its nominal heating capacity at -17°C and 80 per cent at -30°C, whereas its predecessor struggled to keep up once temperatures dipped below -15°C and pretty much packed it in for the day at -20°C. If it should perform as well as I hope during the coldest times of the year, it should cut our fuel oil needs by half. And at some point, I'll replace our tumble dryer with a Miele T1 heat pump model and, with that, eliminate the last of our propane usage.

    Full disclosure : We're a two person household and pretty frugal in our energy use, and we've made a number of improvements to our home's thermal envelope as part of our ongoing renovations. It's hard for me to judge how our home compares energy-wise to those of our neighbours, but I'm guessing we're further along the curve. The attached PDFs provide additional particulars.

    1. jaccen | | #3

      Out of curiosity, what program/hardware did you use to generate the attached pdf's?

      1. CollieGuy | | #21

        I track our electricity consumption by way of our Efergy TPM power monitors, and our fuel oil usage with our MazoutMan monitor. This data get imported into an Excel worksheet along with the temperature readings provided by our Netatmo weather station through VBA scripts.

    2. Jon_R | | #10

      But NZE residential building is a sacred cow - obviously we need building code changes to force CollieGuy to get with the NZE program (even if utility scale renewable energy accomplishes the same thing for less cost).

  2. JC72 | | #2

    Some of these estimates are absurd, especially around the townhome and here's why.

    HOA's typically are responsible for the exterior of the unit. This inhibits the ability of the homeowner to add solar, convert the roof from vented to un-vented (Sorry folks but an unvented roof using ocSPF or ccSPF truly is the only viable option because of all the duct work, mechanicals and standard trusses.

    Window estimates are off by almost a factor of 5-10.

    EV charging is hit or miss. It's not uncommon to see a townhome with a 1-car garage.

    1. spudkensington | | #8

      ^ This about the windows. I don't know where you are getting your numbers from, but in a suburb of Charlotte, NC I had 3 contractors price what I would call "value" windows. Not bare bones $120 Lowe's cheap, and not $1000 designer windows. We're talke $350 low-e Anderson/Pella type windows. Quotes were between $20K and $26K for a 2200 SF home. We wanted to replace because all of the seals are leaking in the original 20 yr old double-hungs. You couldn't even buy the material at Lowe's or HD on the clearance rack for replacement windows at that $4,250 figure. Middle America can barely afford a $2,000 random bill, much less the negative return on investment the majority of energy improvements are. You would do far better with a high interest savings account. I wish it weren't so, but that is our reality. I'm afraid until carbon emissions become actual monetary costs, there's no way we have a chance. That's the only way the playing field will be leveled; when the REAL costs of good and services are realized, environmental impacts and all.

      I second the HOA townhouse as well. I'm on the HOA board for our 89 unit townhome complex (2000 SF to 1500 SF units) and our price on roofing that I solicited 3 quotes for were between $300K and $370K. And I can't imagine the blowback we would get from trying to add exterior XPS or Polyiso under the roof. If you budget $2/SF installed, you might as well call it an additional $250K. If you want to hear people that are ignorant about construction costs whine about how much a roof or plumbing repair costs, join a townhouse HOA board.

      1. m854 | | #18

        The costs are supposedly incremental cost. Or in other words, if you are already replacing the windows, how much more would it cost to install windows with good performance. Of course that still raises questions about the authors assumptions, because windows are not usually replaced every 12 years, and because it's not clear what the lower performance option would be (is anyone putting in single pane windows anymore?)

        1. spudkensington | | #26

          Matt, yes I understand what incremental costs are. My point is when your choice is between braces for your children, a functioning vehicle, replacing your quite less than stellar windows with low-e windows, health insurance and putting food on the table (pick 4, you can't afford 5). I'm going to hazard a guess that the windows will fall to the wayside.

          If you look at a window's lifespan at 24 years, then his 12 year incremental cost is probably close.

          I'd like to think the government would take some sort of serious action like the green new deal, but the can has already been kicked so far down the road that it's hard to believe until you see change. If anything, those on the lower economic spectrum that use public transportation, live in multifamily housing and eat less meat by necessity are greener than most.

          I know this is GBA, and we all are trying to do our part. These discussions are what will incite the change that we need.

    2. u_value | | #23

      Remember I am using incremental costs. I was assuming the addition of storm windows which according to an LBNL study was the same performance as dual pane with the addition of low-e coating. Obviously, replacing with new windows would cost a lot more. You could consider the incremental cost for dual pane to be the improvement from code minimum compliance to (u-value, SHGC) to something with lower values.

  3. Tagcon2019 | | #4

    The heat pump numbers you're using are a little off. A good rule of thumb is $5000 per ductless unit up to 3. Over three indoor units, the cost per units drops to $3500. This is the case in Maine so a typical 3900sqft house would be $22,000 - $25,000 depending on house complexity. This assumes heat pumps will be the primary heat/cooling.

    1. George_S | | #5

      We live in Maine and had a pair of Mitsubishi units (15k and 9k) installed this month for $7400. We also had another a quote for a larger system that was inline with your $3500 number, though both were for dedicated indoor/outdoor pairs (vs multisplit).

  4. u_value | | #6

    So, a couple things to note, the primary being that I was assuming incremental costs over an existing system of the same type. I live in the DC region and pretty much everybody has central air-conditioning and heating, so that is what I used as my baseline. If you never had air-conditioning (in Maine) to begin with, that would definitely change the numbers.

    1. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #14

      I know lots of people in Maine using heat pumps. They all provide air conditioning as well as heat, for no extra initial cost.

  5. u_value | | #7

    With regards to HOAs, I have lived in one HOA where they owned the exterior and another where they didn't own it. If your HOA doesn't currently allow it, there is (a) nothing to say you can't get on the board and change some opinions to make it allowable (b) the possibly do the other things on the list that would take you a good way to decarbonization if not all the way (c) just like apartments who don't have access to the roof, you could always buy renewable energy via your electricity supplier (I do) or deregulated energy supplier.

    There is something in here that you can do to your own dwelling. Now, we just need to "get 'r done" and convince other people to do the same!

  6. Jon_R | | #9

    David, you need to re-examine your assumptions about the most cost effective ways to address climate change. What's the cost per ton of each of your changes vs other changes unrelated to residential buildings? Don't draw arbitrary boxes and then assume that some only partially related metric (like net energy) needs to balance to zero within this box. Doing so is cost inefficient.

    1. u_value | | #11

      I would agree that greening the grid and a carbon tax are going to be key to be cost-effective, it goes without saying that we also need to reduce load via efficiency. We aren't too close to carbon tax passing and we have a long way to go on the renewable energy front. Smaller heating loads mean that we can use heat pumps instead of fossil fuels. Thus, these strategies are intended to reduce load (and in the case of solar panels generate energy). I am open to hearing other methods to reduce loads. Unfortunately, adding thick insulation around the exterior of the building (the optimal for new construction) is very expensive. Martin and Scott talked me down from that measure.

      The idea here is that you do things over time as they fail. So if there are other systems and methods to get to net zero, please share! We need to push at all angles to reduce CO2 output!

      1. Jon_R | | #12

        > it goes without saying that we also need to reduce load

        Another unsupported assumption. Say I build a less energy inefficient house that *increases* load and I direct the cost savings to something that is 2X more efficient in terms of $/ton of carbon.

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #13


          On one level I completely agree with your approach. Each individual examines their total consumption and allocates their resources to wherever it makes the most sense - looking at it as a lifestyle thing, not one limited to buildings.

          Where I think that falls down a bit is that the decisions we make about housing stock - or even the one house we may build - aren't limited to the timeframe any one individual lives in that house. So the trade-offs which may make sense for a brief period of one individual's tenure there (something like I'll skimp on insulation, not put in PV, and instead take mass transit to work and not buy a car) affect the general efficiency of the total housing stock - and also the individual house, which will be lived in by others who may make no compromises in lifestyle.

          Doesn't it make some sense to upgrade the total stock to even out what may or may not be done elsewhere by the inhabitants? isn't it much like requiring that car makers meet a certain level of fuel efficiency - regardless of the distance their eventual owners may or may not drive?

          1. Jon_R | | #17

            ALL carbon reduction efforts have time and certainty components that have to be factored in. Some things are more permanent and certain than housing stock, some are less.

        2. u_value | | #15

          OK. So what are those strategies that are more cost effective?

          1. u_value | | #22

            The cheapest thing would to live in a tent and walk everywhere.

        3. u_value | | #16

          As we only have 12 years to fix this climate problem, we need to do ALL the right things. If we had started 30 years ago, I think we could be more philosophical and surgical about this, but 12 years is not a lot of time to remake the economy and adjust recalcitrant, comfort-loving people to a new reality. This approach maintains the status quo. If, you want to turn down the thermostat back to 55 in the winter and use no air-conditioning, ride a bike, and not eat meat, it would be a lot easier to reach a net zero life-style. And I am all for those things. The problem is we have some convincing to do with a large percentage of the populous that ecology, economy, and comfort can work together. That is what this narrow plan is doing.

          1. Jon_R | | #20

            I'm trying to encourage you to figure out what the "right things" are vs making assumptions. Money is a limiting factor. Why would anyone do X when Y is equally doable and will reduce twice as much carbon for the same cost?

        4. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #19


          As general proposition that's hard to dispute. I'm wondering though what a list of collective and individual carbon reduction actions would include? And how that list would negate the usefulness of increasing the efficiency of our housing stock? Because it sound a lot like it posits an either or approach: A we either plant trees or build better houses type thing - which to me is a false choice.

          1. Jon_R | | #28

            > we either plant trees or build better houses

            If both fall under the targeted $/ton that will lead to the right amount of reduction, then yes, you do both. On the other hand, it may be that you plant even more trees and skip some elements of "better" houses, resulting in more environmental benefit for less cost.

            What specifically makes sense and what doesn't? I'm not a carbon reduction expert. But I do understand logic. And I don't see much of it applied to addressing climate change.

    2. AndyKosick | | #24

      "What's the cost per ton of each of your changes vs other changes unrelated to residential buildings?"

      This is Green Building Advisor, I think this does a good job of putting some numbers to the carbon cutting decisions people need to make about their homes. The title of the piece is a bit broad but people come to GBA for advise related to building. It's true that changing your diet can help reduce carbon but that wouldn't really make sense here at GBA.

      1. Jon_R | | #29

        Diet is a straw man. How about paying the utility extra (see #1) to get renewable power and not putting PV on the roof? Or planting trees in the backyard vs an expensive, slightly higher SEER heat pump?

        GBA often talks about $ ROI - I'd like to see the concept expanded to environmental return on $ invested (eg, $/ton). But if someone wants to focus on green building without regard to big picture cost effectiveness, then we should skip over NZE and start talking about ENNC (extremely net negative carbon) buildings.

  7. rockies63 | | #25

    As everyone dives (predictably) into the modeling software used and the types of heating systems used and the windows used etc in this article nobody seems interested in the size of the home.

    3900 sq' of conditioned space for a family in the suburbs but 1500 sq' of conditioned space for a rural family? Why can't the suburban family exist happily in a 1500 sq' home? I grew up in a 1200 sq' home in the suburbs and we were a family of five. All the efficient technology in the world won't make up for the fact that most houses are too big.

    I just read a book about the "150 best ecologically efficient homes" in the world. Every one of them was over 3000 sq' in size and yet each one only housed 4 occupants at most. And what were the "bragging points" to get them featured in a the book about ecological buildings? They had LED light bulbs and low flow showerheads.. Ooooh look, some even used renewable bamboo for their floors! What a bandaid solution.

    Build smaller. That way the supper efficient heating system you have to buy won't have so much empty space to heat.

    1. u_value | | #27

      Yes. I agree that it would be best to build smaller. However, my article was mainly about taking the housing stock what we currently have and quickly and easily making it net zero. Unfortunately we have a lot of largish houses and the likelihood that we are going to herd all of the suburbs into communist housing blocks is small. Tearing them down also would probably not be the best environmental or economic decision. Thus, we are left with making what we already have much better.

      Luckily, many people are moving to the cities for the jobs, which incententally reduces housing sizes out of cost.

    2. Jon_R | | #31

      Size is just another option - if you want large and make up for it in other ways, no problem. It will cost more, but it's your money.

      1. maine_tyler | | #34

        Based on what baseline for allowable impact?
        Or do you just mean based on personal financial capacity?

        I would find it hard to believe that one could minimize their environmental impacts on the dollar by building a large house and doing 'other things.'
        On the other hand, if they aren't limited financially (have a lot of money) shouldn't they do both (build small and do the 'other thing')?

  8. user-1140531 | | #30

    If the entire population suddenly began an emergency program to invest in home upgrades and construction projects, demand for products and services would surge to unimaginable levels. Prices for goods and services would rise and quality would drop. I don’t see how individual costs could be predicted when such a market overload surge would be inevitable with the unprecedented demand.

    1. u_value | | #33

      I agree with you that prices would go up and quality would go down if like in the aftermath of a hurricane EVERYONE, did the same thing at the same time. My timeline is over the course of the next 12 years, so hopefully the cost increase would not be too drastic.

      However, there is already a natural life cycle to energy consuming products. I think a great thing would be for the minimum federal efficiency of products be increased to premium-efficiency levels. Then also provide low and moderate income people with tax credits for the purchase. This would make everyone buy the right equipment to mitigate climate change when their equipment failed.

  9. maine_tyler | | #32

    I am appreciating Jon's points in regards to viewing climate change solutions through a systems analysis lens. As soon as we box something in for analysis, the overall system efficiency is no longer one side of the equation, and so determined solutions will not necessarily solve for it.

    The challenge in drawing one all-encompassing box (or no box) is that it asks us to think on near genius levels and/or to cooperate as a species to the highest degree. Even if working together and being really smart is achieved, it will likely still be useful to partially isolate systems in order to tame analysis to levels manageable by human minds.

    One challenge with broad systems analysis that include $ signs in the equation is that current monetary values are not expressly representative of environmental costs. It may be possible to work out more accurate values with a lot of data analysis and forethought, but as it stands, it is difficult to make apples to apples comparisons between various choices when viewed in a purely economic framework.
    One example that comes to mind is the DER. The costs of a DER is largely labor, which falls into a unique category of environmental impacts analysis.

    The issue becomes all the more sticky when we consider that what is best for the environment is likely not realistic or desirable to most people (how about we all live in 300 sqft apartments? Or better yet, hook into a matrix like machine that keeps us alive with absolute minimal energy investment?) How do we manage a vast systems analysis when the equation is laden with deeply human variables?

    Striving for big picture solutions means not only asking questions like 'should we plant trees instead of upgrade our heating system?' but questions like 'are our actions and investments coordinating with those on the other side of the planet for the most effective global change.' Rugged individualism is a bit of a barrier to this mindset, as are soundbites and deeply ingrained false dichotomies.

    1. u_value | | #35

      So, I agree with you that this big-picture thinking can and should be done, but in terms of the political, economic, and environmental realities we have right now, government is largely going to be absent from this thinking for the next couple years. And they are going to be the ones able to best implement such trade-offs at scale. They can for example eminant domain land in the US and say, this is forest land now for carbon sequestration. They can also give aid to other developing countries to allow them to technology jump to the most efficient, most environmentally friendly technologies like solar panels.

      However, we have control over our own homes and we can make a difference by selecting the most efficient replacement equipment as they die. It is not a perfect solution, but it is one that with all of GBA reader support could stimulate the efficiency economy.

      I am doubting that many of us will donate $1000/ year for the next 12 years to charitable environmental causes in lieu of obtaining some benefit for ourselves. That is why actions like the ones I describe are so important. Because when we select premium efficient equipment we help ourselves AND the environment.

      $/ CO2 saved be damned at this point. The IPCC projects that we only have a 67% chance to stay below 1.5 degrees C (the necessity for sustaining life as it is today) if we get aggressive NOW on climate change.

      1. maine_tyler | | #36

        " if we get aggressive NOW on climate change."

        Yes I agree with your points. We need to start somewhere. I'm all too familiar with 'paralysis of analysis.'

        I think the 'wait walk' thought experiment is an interesting one applied to this topic. I won't go too far into it, but the short of it is this:
        How long should one wait in taking action for a better or more hashed out option (e.g. better tech, better policies, better analysis) to arrive vs simply starting a journey, albeit more sluggishly.

        In a narrower context, it can also be applied to buying energy efficient appliances and the like. E.G. should one replace their old appliances right away if affordable, or if they can keep their old equipment chugging a bit longer, will they see markedly improved performance and efficiencies from new technology by waiting, thereby surpassing the cumulative benefit of an earlier adoption? Inevitably, the answer will be 'it depends'.

        1. u_value | | #38

          I agree with the wait-walk experiment. Your example used replacing appliances. What I would love to see happen is that when peoples appliances die, that they replace them with the most efficient available. That can be done by user-choice, but also can be set by federal minimum efficiency should that ever be an option.

          1. Jon_R | | #40

            > I would love to see ... they replace them with the most efficient available

            Are you sure about this? I'll build you a million $ dishwasher that is 1% more efficient.

            Not clear why you are so set against cost effective carbon reduction. It's not that hard to calculate with usable accuracy.

          2. u_value | | #43

            Jon R, I get what you are saying about $1M dishwasher, but you are being a tad hyperbolic. There are very efficient appliances and equipment that exist today for moderate prices. (If mfr would stop adding unnecessary bells and whistles there would be even more at a reasonable price.) I am not going to spend $2000 on a dishwasher and I dont expect anyone else to do so. Dishwashers are also low on the energy use list, way behind HVAC and hot water heating.

            We need tax credits and to make it more possible to achieve this reality for more people. That's not impossible.

    2. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #37

      On a theoretical level I agree with Jon too. The problem I see is to collectively institute the analysis and provide the mechanisms necessary would involve a level of social control that isn't possible or desirable. So you are left with individuals choosing short-term solutions, like deciding to buy clean power, based on their individual situations, that can have long-term effects on the efficiency of the housing stock. That seems like a troubling solution.

      1. Jon_R | | #39

        Implement carbon taxes and subsidies (this is possible and desirable) and suddenly large numbers of smart, industry knowledgeable people would be working on carbon reduction. Or don't and expect them to have no interest in it.

        > So you are left with individuals choosing short-term solutions

        No, there are short term and long term alternative solutions. A tree is likely to outlast a more efficient dishwasher.

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #41

          Up here we are engaged in exactly that effort. Here in BC we have had a carbon tax for years. Challenges to our nationwide system are slowly making their way thr0ugh the court system. Hopefully it will be fully implemented quite soon.

      2. maine_tyler | | #42

        The point of Jon's that I found important was that efficiency doesn't happen in a bubble, but at scale. Honestly, it can be hard for me to remember this in my own pursuits. I think it's simply a good reminder.

        The sticky social aspects are complicated by the polarized political world. It's become nothing more than scarecrows bickering over false dichotomies.
        I think re-framing such matters with concepts like community, mutual understanding, and common good would provide a more fruitful discussion than the typical 'individual freedom vs global regulation' debate. I don't think it should be about control at all, nor about imposing on someones individualism (an illusionary concept), but about understanding and common ground. The earth is, quite literally, everyone's common ground.

  10. DC_Eakin | | #44

    Current situation #1 - unlike any other commercial product, owners expect that residential buildings will INCREASE in value over time. This sentiment does not even exist in the commercial real estate market, just residential. The realtor lobby group (the largest contributors by far of ANY lobbyists) keeps this up. If not, residential house sales would look much more like used car sales and sales commissions would drop like a millstone. If this current mindset is not changed, the proposed efforts will not be executed. Dire straits in 12 years? Who cares. Let someone else deal with it/kick the can down the road.
    If you really want to change the status quo (by legislation), you need to change building code applicability. Currently it is only for new construction (and still varies by location); all previous construction (of any place, any year) is grandfathered forward. Major renovation work is supposed to get permitted, but most do not. Cut out the grandfathering (i.e., all sales of ALL residential properties must comply with ALL current building codes EVERYWHERE) and residential buildings will immediately turn into depreciating assets that will (mostly) be too expensive to retrofit in the future. Certain exemptions will always be needed for historic value or historic area façade compliance, but most will not make it past the initial 10-15 years after new construction. Building/recycling business will skyrocket; demand for talented people in building trades will skyrocket; demand for modular building construction will skyrocket; new ways of thinking about residential occupancy will emerge; carbon footprints will dramatically reduce; total cost of operation will dramatically reduce (for both private and public housing); IAQ will dramatically improve; everyone will pay considerably more for housing over their lifetimes; houses will no longer be viewed as "your greatest asset".
    But not if addressing these issues is a voluntary program continuing with today's fiscal mindset.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #46


      Are you really suggesting that we knock down every house built here before last year when the code changed the amount of reinforcing required in foundations?

      1. DC_Eakin | | #47

        My proposal would require updating residential buildings prior to resale. It would be up to the current owner to decide whether or not to upgrade or sell exclusively for land value. Even foundation upgrades (reinforcement, water drainage, insulation, etc.) can be done retrofit. Whether or not it makes sense fiscally is up to the owner. Would probably lead to much more insulated slab-on-grade foundations and modular building elements. No bad news here.

  11. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #45

    Building codes change every three years. Houses typically turnover about every 5-10 years, and upgrading certain code nonconformances would, as you say, be cost prohibitive enough to make demolition more economically feasible than upgrade and repair. In what part of your proposal do you take into account the carbon cost of replacement of residential structures on a 5-10 year cycle rather than the current 50-100 year cycle?

    Rather than your description of the outcome of such a policy, what you would see instead is that home ownership would evaporate overnight. Instead, homes would be corporate owned and rented. Since the ownership would outlast the renters, no upgrades would be required until the corporate owner sold the property decades down the road. This is already the fact in urban areas, and it would simply extend to the suburbs. While this shift in ownership would certainly help to further concentrate wealth in the hands of the wealthy, I doubt it would have any significant impact on code compliance or energy use. In fact, there is no economic incentive for corporate owners to improve building energy efficiency as they rarely pay the utility bills.

    1. DC_Eakin | | #48

      Not necessarily. But if there is a problem as large as the author suggests, and only a 12-year timeline in which to affect the social change needed to both solve the current crisis and avoid future crisis then I propose a radical change is needed. My proposal still allows for private ownership, continued single-family dwellings, reuse of existing building materials (the deconstruction phase), improved residential comfort/health/economics due to implementation of the latest building codes (probably not even best practice as even a single, national building code would lag most current building science technology). But it will also implement a 180-degree change in how people think about/finance their residences. Much more of a "new car" mentality then an "investment".

  12. vap0rtranz | | #49

    Why not start with a simple statement about how much energy American households spend on heating / cooling?

    Some simple graphs from EIA make the point fairly quick:

    Starting out with a doom-n-gloom premise on climate change will turn-off many Americans.

    Also, -- follow-the-money, or as more American's know it "SHOW ME THE MONEY" :)

    Frame the energy efficiency as part of home improvement. American homeowners know (and expect) that renovations will raise the market value of their home.

    Perhaps give us (lay people) a carrot: you'll get $10k on home renovations if:
    a) you attend this energy efficiency 101 class at your local community center
    b) spend the money on energy efficient home improvements during your renovation

    Some information on payback for these improvements, like how the homeowner can lower their taxes, like links to the IRS:

    I just don't think the average, "median" American homeowner is going to read through all this detail, or even if they do this jargon isn't for the laymen. Ex: what is "Tier 1 CEE appliances"? Americans know Energy Star. What is an "inverter-driven, high-efficiency heat pump"? Americans know heat pumps as A/Cs.

    Most folks will understand the "payback" on investments in energy efficiency in the lense of a HGTV home improvement show, not at this level of detail :)

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