Carbon-reduction initiatives have begun to increasingly target the construction industry, particularly in light of data showing that buildings generate up to 40% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions. While the Federal Green New Deal remains stalled in Congress and states have been slow to spring into action, a number of cities have moved forward with climate proposals that include a shift toward carbon-free buildings.
Most recently, on February 10, 2020, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive directive to accelerate the initiatives of the Green New Deal adopted by Los Angeles in April 2019. The directive requires all new municipally owned buildings or major renovations to be designed to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. The directive suggests several methods to accomplish its goal of zero carbon buildings, including maximizing deployment of energy efficiency, smart design, on-site renewable generation, and electrification (i.e., converting building systems that use fossil fuels—gas, oil or propane—to high-efficiency electric equipment that can be powered by increasingly clean and renewable electricity).
The executive directive further orders the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering to adopt California’s Buy Clean California Act guidelines to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from building materials. The Buy Clean California Act requires the California Department of General Services to establish and publish the maximum acceptable Global Warming Potential (GWP) for construction materials used in public works projects. Per the Los Angeles Directive, the City Engineer must instruct the Bureau of Engineering to require Environmental Product Disclosure (i.e., a verified and registered document that communicates information about the life cycle environmental impact of products) for all steel, flat glass and mineral wool insulation by January 1, 2021. The Bureau of Engineering must also align procurement decisions for steel, flat glass and mineral wool using California’s adopted GWP limits by July 1, 2021, and examine additional carbon-intensive building materials to include in the future. Additionally, the directive requires the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering to study the use of building materials that sequester carbon and report its findings and recommendations to the mayor’s office by June 1, 2020.
This move by Los Angeles follows carbon-free initiatives by several other U.S. cities:
- Seattle: On January 8, 2020, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a “Green New Deal” executive order that requires new or substantially altered city buildings to operate without fossil fuels, including space heating and cooling, water heating, and cooking.
- Pittsburgh: In October 2019, the Pittsburgh City Council passed an ordinance requiring all new or renovated city buildings to be net-zero ready, meaning they will produce as much or more energy than they use within one year.
- San Francisco: In September 2019, San Francisco passed an ordinance that requires commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet to rely fully on renewable electricity by 2022. Smaller commercial buildings will be phased in over time, with buildings over 250,000 square feet going fully renewable by 2024, and buildings over 50,000 square feet going fully renewable by 2030.
- Berkeley, Calif.: Beginning January 1, 2020, a Berkley law bans natural gas infrastructure in new low-rise residential buildings. The law also requires all new buildings in Berkeley to be constructed “electric-ready,” with the necessary panels and wiring conduits to support electric infrastructure.
- San Jose, Calif.: Following the Berkeley law, San Jose also banned the installation of natural gas infrastructure in new residential buildings. The San Jose law further requires all new multifamily buildings to include 70% electric vehicle capable spaces, at least 20% electric vehicle ready spaces, and at least 10% electric vehicle supply equipment spaces.
- New York City: In April 2019, New York City passed legislation setting emissions caps on buildings larger than 25,000 square feet.
The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA)—a group of global cities working to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% or more by 2050 or sooner—is developing a policy framework for reducing embodied carbon in infrastructure, buildings, and construction, which it plans to launch in spring 2020. The release of CNCA’s framework will likely prompt even more cities to adopt zero-carbon building initiatives. Construction companies should continue to monitor these city initiatives and consider what steps they will need to take to transition to construction materials and building designs that are compatible with net-zero carbon targets.