A campaign to lower carbon emissions by prohibiting fossil fuels connections in new buildings has moved to the East Coast.
In mid-November, a town just outside Boston became the first in Massachusetts to ban oil and gas installation in new buildings as citizens there joined a number of California communities that have already enacted similar bylaws.
There were only 3 votes against the proposal at a town meeting in Brookline, Massachusetts, The Boston Globe reported, as the community of roughly 58,000 voted to tackle climate change by requiring new homes to run on electricity alone.
The measure, which must still be approved by the state attorney general’s office, was opposed by oil and gas interests, real estate developers, and others. It affects both new construction and major renovations.
“Prohibiting Brookline residents from choosing an affordable, reliable, and entirely legal heating fuel like natural gas or bioheat is outrageously unfair,” Stephen Dodge, executive director of the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, a trade association for the gas and oil industry, told the Globe. “If cities and towns can start trying to outlaw utilities licensed by the state Department of Public Utilities from serving willing customers who want to buy energy from them, we’re heading toward regulatory and legal chaos.”
The real estate industry fears the measure would increase construction costs for new buildings and make utility expenses higher for homeowners. A court challenge is expected.
Berkeley, California, became the first community in the country to take this step with a vote in July. More than a dozen other California communities have since followed suit. Proponents argue that every house and high-rise built today will be in place for decades, and so will the fossil fuel infrastructure unless steps are taken to convert buildings to fuels that are less damaging to the environment.
USA Today reports that some 35% of U.S. households have gas stoves. The American Gas Association, a trade group representing more than 200 local gas companies, says an average of one new gas customer is added every minute.
The fossil fuel bans that have been approved so far differ in some of the details. In Brookline, the measure allows exemptions for restaurants, medical labs, and other buildings when there are no realistic alternatives to burning fossil fuels, the Globe said. Waivers also could be considered by a new town board.
Tamara C. Small, CEO of a trade group for the commercial real estate industry, said in a letter to the Brookline Planning Board that it was important not to hinder construction of new housing, or make it any more expensive for town residents.
She also noted the region’s electricity grid relies mainly on natural gas, so the environmental benefits from the ban on new gas and oil hookups in buildings may be a while in coming.
Climate chaos ahead without cuts, UN says
Brookline’s initiative may seem trivial or disruptive to its critics, but supporters see efforts to phase out the use of fossil fuels as an urgently needed step. And scientists warn that efforts to cut carbon emissions to date have not been nearly enough to prevent catastrophic climate change.
In a new report, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization said measurements of several greenhouse gases showed above average emissions in 2018 as CO2 levels reached an all time high. The gap between lower emissions targets adopted by many industrialized countries and what’s actually being dumped into the atmosphere are “glaring and growing,” The Guardian reported.
Scientists warn that emissions must be cut by half by 2030 if the global temperature rise is to be limited to 1.5°C, the point beyond which climate change will be disastrous. That now seems unlikely to happen, WMO secretary general Petteri Taalas told the newspaper.
“There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change,” Taalas said. “We need to increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of mankind.”
He added that the last time Earth had seen a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was between 3 million and 5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea levels were between 10 and 20 meters higher.
The WMO report published on November 25 said the global average concentration of CO2 was 407.8 parts per million in 2018, an increase from 405.5 ppm the year before. Averages are now 50% higher than they were before the industrial revolution began in the mid 18th century.
John Sauven, head of Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian: “The number is the closest thing to a real-world Doomsday Clock, and it’s pushing us ever closer to midnight. Our ability to preserve civilization as we know it, avert the mass extinction of species, and leave a healthy planet to our children depend on us urgently stopping the clock.”
-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.