By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Given the pushback from both the public and local real estate industry leaders, it is not surprising that the Davis City Council further backed off the building electrification requirement.
But does the approach go far enough given the extent of the climate emergency that we are facing?
The city backed off a requirement at the point of sale, instead opting for a requirement that occurs at the “end of useful life.”
But as Nick Marin from the Yolo Realtors warned, “The CAAP relies heavily on what has come to be known as “end of useful life” which would require, at some level, residents replacing broken or worn out gas appliances with electric models. In theory it makes some sense especially when we understand that the sale of certain gas appliances may be banned by the state or other jurisdictions. However, the mandatory nature of the measure will doom it to fail.”
He argued, “It’s no simple, or cheap, feat to change out gas appliances for electric options.”
So the council further watered it down. Outgoing councilmember Dan Carson favored a “robust voltary approach.” Such an approach he said, would “not lock us into a date of change, but have a trigger and evaluation at some point.”
Instead he said, “start with a voluntary program and three years from the point where we actually launch a voluntary program with outreach and all the tools and maybe financial resources for folks, and education, we then do an evaluation to see if we’re getting somewhere.”
Only outgoing Mayor Lucas Frerichs was opposed to the plan arguing, “I would personally favor keeping the end-of-useful life replacement in there.”
But does this approach go far enough.
Councilmember Josh Chapman argued during his comments that he has seen residents step up voluntarily to fight against climate change. While undoubtedly true, we know from social science research on voluntary compliance, free rider problems and the like, that voluntary systems never work.
The problem of free riding is too pervasive. Other than the narrow hard core of committed activists, most people will at least implicitly reason that the cost of the change, the inconvenience of the change overwhelms the infinitesimal contribution that they would to the problem of climate change.
You need government regulation or strong financial incentives to override that free rider problem.
The naysayers on this policy are not wrong. The cost here is enormous and the contribution that even a community-wide effort would make is negligible.
Transportation is by far larger local contributor to GHG emissions. One of the biggest influences on climate change would be commuting to and from work. If the state wants to greatly reduce its carbon footprint it ought to start by putting housing next to jobs to reduce VMT.
But this issue is not insignificant either.
While building energy is currently only 15% of Davis’ total emissions, the city still believes “this is a significant goal to meet the City’s carbon neutrality target.” Staff adds, “Electrification reduces GHG emissions by replacing natural gas appliances with electric appliances if the supplied electricity is carbon-free (can also be referred to as 100% renewable).”
Staff notes, “Unlike the transportation sector where vehicle manufacturers have set aggressive targets to increase electric vehicle sales, there is no industry-wide commitment to decarbonizing existing buildings, which places most of the responsibility for action at the community level. The Building Energy actions in the CAAP primarily emphasize voluntary compliance, through education and outreach.”
That suggests a statewide or even a nationwide electrification approach could reduce the carbon footprint significantly. But it would have to be a broader approach.
I agree with many who believed that point of sales requirements were too onerous not to mention wasteful. We could be phasing out the gas of gas appliances which have a limited shelf-life. That could lead to a very real reduction.
By making it voluntary and giving it three years to evaluated, that puts us already into 2026 when the city needs to get a handle on things by 2030 and 2040 at the latest.
But the cost considerations are not insignificant and as council mentioned during their deliberations, most people find out their water heater is gone when it stops working. All of sudden they could be out huge amounts of money. That’s not necessarily workable either.
Clearly if this is a viable path forward toward reducing climate impacts and carbon emissions, the state and federal government are going to have to figure out ways to subsidize the conversion process. That’s going to take a heavy lift at the national level given the amount of pushback and political divide.
It is probably more practical at the state level. From that standpoint, the council is probably wise to avoid a heavy revolt at this time. But I think they ought to search for subsidies and incentives rather than simply looking at a voluntary system.
In the end, climate change figures to hammer the US economy and cost taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. Finding ways to prevent the worst effects is cost effective, but finding ways to cushion those costs especially on lower income households is essential.