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For the last four years the Trump administration has rolled back environmental regulations and blocked policies that would create jobs, save Americans money, and reduce carbon pollution. Joe Biden and his campaign have promised to do the opposite and put America on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Given that buildings contribute roughly a quarter of emissions in the United States, getting Americans to upgrade their home insulation and switch to heat pumps, LED lighting, hybrid water heaters (or tankless water heaters where hybrids aren’t possible), will be essential.
But how much could a Biden administration achieve given Republican opposition to environmental policy in Congress and a likely 6-3 conservative Supreme Court? And how would their plan to address the climate crisis differ from the plans laid out in the Green New Deal? In this report we sought to answer those two questions, with a focus on building sector emissions (35% of total US emissions).
The short answer to the first question is that Biden could achieve a lot. As a Democrat known for his ability to work with Republicans, many of the policies would likely win bipartisan support and votes from moderate Republicans like Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski. For example, if Biden were to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol—something that Republican Senators recently expressed support for—he could cut emissions by 9.5 billion metric tons by 2050.
Biden could also cut emissions without passing a single bill through Congress. For example, updating appliance efficiency standards would cut emissions by 5.2 billion metric tons. However, going around Congress would come with a tradeoff. Something like appliance efficiency standards would face intense legal opposition by manufacturers and trade groups that would likely reach the Supreme Court. With Trump’s nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Republican Senators eager to confirm her before the election, it’s very likely that appliance efficiency standards cases would be heard by a 6-3 conservative court.
As for the second question—how different is Biden’s plan than the Green New Deal—the short answer is, once again, a lot. Biden’s campaign has promised they would upgrade 6 million buildings in America over 4 years. The Green New Deal suggests upgrading 50 million buildings over the same period.
Using the ResStock model and data from previous energy efficiency research, we also looked at the environmental and economic impact of Biden’s plan to upgrade America’s home energy efficiency (referred to as “weatherization”). We then compared it to the plans suggested by the Green New Deal.
Biden plans to “weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years”—an average of 500,000 homes per year. A Green New Deal would upgrade 8 million homes per year to “maximum energy efficiency.”
According to our analysis Biden’s weatherization plan would create 109,860 jobs, generate $14 billion in economic activity, and reduce annual emissions by 6.6 million metric tons by 2025. The Green New Deal, on the other hand, would create 10 million jobs, generate $1.2 trillion in economic activity, and reduce annual emissions by 263 million metric tons. In other words, when Biden said, “The Green New Deal is not my plan,” he wasn’t lying.
Why we wrote this report
Carbon Switch produces research and guides that help people and communities live more sustainably. Our guides help people make decisions like whether to buy a tankless water heater, electric water heater, or a heat pump water heater, decisions that have big emissions impacts that last decades. Our hope is that these guides can lead to a change in consumer behavior. But we believe that only policy and systemic change will solve our current environmental crisis. Without good policies, climate solutions like heat pumps, home insulation, and LED lighting will remain too expensive and out of reach for most Americans.
That’s why we produce rigorously researched reports like this one based on important climate policies. These reports have been covered by outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Time, CNBC, and dozens more.
Highlights from this report
- Biden’s plan could cut building emissions by 16 billion tons between now and 2050, a sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks over the last four years.
- Some of the most impactful actions wouldn’t require Congressional support. For example, appliance efficiency standards would cut emissions by 5.2 billion MTCO2 eq.
- But many of those policies would be at-risk if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice since they are likely to face intense legal opposition from trade associations and manufacturers.
- Most of his proposals have bipartisan support. For example, if Biden ratified the Kigali Agreement, emissions from HFCs would be cut by 9.5 billion MTCO2 eq.
- Biden says his administration will “set a target of reducing the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035.” But the commitments listed in his plan would only reduce emissions by a few percent.
- Biden’s weatherization plan would generate $14 billion in economic activity, create 106,000 jobs, and save 2 million Americans $606 per year on their utility bill. However, it wouldn’t achieve the carbon reductions necessary to meet the Paris targets.
- Biden’s plan to curb building emissions looks very different from the Green New Deal. The Biden plan sets a target of upgrading 1.5 million buildings a year compared to the Green New Deal’s 8 million per year target.
To hit the Paris targets every building needs to be 50% more efficient
In 2019 buildings were responsible for 35% of energy-related emissions in the United States — emitting a total of 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2. To put that number in perspective, if America’s buildings were a country, they would rank 4th in total emissions, just behind India and ahead of Russia.
In order to meet the goals set in the Paris Agreement, the United States will need to need to eliminate nearly all of these emissions by 2050. At a high level, the way to achieve this is by:
- Retrofitting every existing building to be 50% more efficient.
- Electrifying all appliances and equipment (i.e. replacing natural gas with electricity)
- Building only net-zero buildings going forward.
- Dramatically increasing renewable energy production (both on the grid and on-site)
And time is of the essence when it comes to making these changes since many appliances last 15-30 years. That means when a homeowner chooses to put a conventional electric water heater in their home instead of a heat pump water heater they lock in decades of inefficient energy use. Or when someone installs a gas furnace and air conditioner instead of a heat pump they lock in decades of unnecessary fossil fuel consumption.
Why improving energy efficiency in existing buildings is so important
- 80% of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been built.
- Replacing the existing building stock would require carbon intensive construction and manufacturing.
- 50% more efficient buildings means 50% less renewable energy capacity that needs to be built (i.e. it makes the clean energy transition easier).
Achieving zero emissions in the building sector will be incredibly difficult. While we need to reduce energy use in every building by 50%, the best retrofit programs today only cut energy by 10-20%. That’s because they focus on important, but ultimately too small changes like switching to LED lighting, improving home insulation, and installing hybrid hot water heaters and heat pumps. “Deep retrofits” — upgrades that reduce energy use by more than 50% — cost on average $40,000 per home.
Today the most successful whole-house retrofit programs reach 1% of homeowners. In order to turn over the entire building stock by 2050 we need 3.3% of homeowners in every county in America to retrofit their home.
What’s Biden’s plan to cut building emissions?
Earlier this year, Joe Biden’s campaign released their plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. We analyzed the plan and identified all the targets, commitments, and policy proposals that address building emissions.
- “Building on his efforts in the Recovery Act, Biden will set a target of reducing the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035, creating incentives for deep retrofits that combine appliance electrification, efficiency, and on-site clean power generation.”
- “Biden will [create] 1 million jobs upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes over 4 years.
- “Disadvantaged communities receive 40% of overall benefits of spending in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency deployment.”
Commitments and policy proposals
- “He will embrace the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, adding momentum to curbing hydrofluorocarbons, an especially potent greenhouse gas, which could deliver a 0.5 degree Celsius reduction in global warming by mid-century.”
- “He will direct the U.S. Department of Energy to redouble efforts to accelerate new efficiency standards for household appliances and equipment.”
- “He will repair and accelerate the building code process and create a new funding mechanism for states and cities to adopt strict building codes and train builders and inspectors.”
(This is particularly important because even climate solutions like heat pumps still use HFCs, which release potent greenhouse gases at the end of their life).
How is Biden’s plan different from the Green New Deal?
In recent weeks Trump and Pence have tried to draw parallels between the Biden plan and the Green New Deal. During the first debate between the two candidates, Trump accused Biden of supporting “the radical Green New Deal.” Biden responded: “The Green New Deal is not my plan.” So how similar is Biden’s plan to curb building emissions to the suggestions made in the Green New Deal?
While the Green New Deal isn’t a bill or policy proposal, it makes clear suggestions on how to curb building emissions. Like Biden’s plan the Green New Deal calls for, “Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030” and “net-zero global emissions by 2050.” But this is where the similarities end.
The Green New Deal suggests that those goals should “be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization that will require… upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”
To compare the two it’s easier to look at how many buildings each plan suggests upgrading each year. With a target of “upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes over 4 years” the Biden campaign plans to upgrade 6 million buildings over 4 years, or 1.5 million buildings per year. The Green New Deal sets a target of upgrading every building in America (there are about 125 million) in 10 years, or 12.5 million per year.
In other words there’s about a 10x difference between Biden’s plan and the Green New Deal when it comes to retrofits.
Or to compare the plans as if they were energy efficient houses, you can think of Biden’s plan as a house with some nice LED lights, adequate insulation, and a heat pump water heater. Definitely not bad, but not enough to get us to 1.5 degrees and a zero-emissions economy. The Green New Deal on the other hand would be a home with the LEDs, hybrid water heater and a heat pump, the highest R-value insulation, rooftop solar, energy efficient windows, top-tier air sealing, and a half dozen other energy efficiency improvements.
Biden’s weatherization plan compared to the Green New Deal
The two plans also differ significantly in respect to how they approach residential retrofits. Once again to compare the two plans, it’s helpful to look at how many homes each plan recommends upgrading each year.
Biden’s campaign frequently mentions the work that he did as Vice President in the Obama administration. The plan says, “Building on his efforts in the Recovery Act, Biden will set a target of reducing the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035.” And then later: “Obama-Biden Administration Record: Implemented energy efficiency standards for buildings, homes and appliances, with a particular focus on saving consumers money on heating and cooling bills.” So what is the Biden campaign referring to?
As a part of the Recovery Act, the Obama administration launched the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program (BBNP). According to a final report on the program released in 2015, “BBNP distributed a total of $508 million to support efforts in hundreds of communities served by 41 grantees.” They upgraded 99,071 buildings; 74,184 of those were residential homes. The average residential retrofit cost $7,214 and cut home energy use by 15%.
BBNP helped these homeowners make important, but relatively small improvements like switching to LEDs, improving insulation, and installing more energy efficient water heaters. In some cases they helped people doing upgrades like improve their heating and cooling system. Considering heat pumps cost a lot of money, this created a lot of energy savings that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
It’s likely that the Biden administration would include a similar program in any stimulus bill they propose due to the fact that retrofit programs create jobs in every county and provide a fast-way to deploy stimulus money. It’s also likely that they would only pursue cost-effective retrofits (or in technical speak, upgrades with a net-present value of more than 0).
According to an analysis we did using the ResStock building model, today the average weatherization upgrade would cost $7,007 and cut energy use by 20% (resulting in average utility bill savings of $606 per year). When the Biden campaign refers to “weatherizing 2 million homes over 4 years” (500,000 per year on average), these are likely the type of upgrades they mean. So how does Biden’s weatherization plan compare to the Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal calls for upgrading every home in America within 10 years “to achieve maximum energy efficiency.” According to the American Housing Survey there are about 79 million single-family homes in America, which means upgrading about 8 million homes per year. Today, “maximum energy efficiency” would be a deep-retrofit that—as mentioned above—costs on average $40,000 per home and reduces energy use by more than 50%. (It’s worth pointing out that deep retrofits pay for themselves over 30 years since they save homeowners $1,300 per year on average).
When Biden said in the debate, “The Green New Deal is not my plan,” he was telling the truth. A Biden plan aims to upgrade 500,000 homes per year; A Green New Deal would upgrade 8 million per year (16x more). A Biden plan would likely target cost-effective weatherizations with an average cost of $7,000 per home; A Green New Deal would target “maximum energy efficiency” with an average cost of $40,000 per home.
In addition to looking at the number of homes upgraded we created a model based on previous academic research, Department of Energy studies, data from the ResStock model, and the results of the Obama’s BBNP program to understand the impact of each plan on the economy and the environment. Below is a summary of our findings:
How many emissions would a Biden plan cut?
In addition to analyzing the weatherization program we reviewed previous studies and research to understand how many building sector emissions could be cut based on the other proposals in Biden’s climate plan.
Of course, if Biden wins the election in November, it will be difficult to pass any meaningful climate bills—even with a Democrat-controlled Senate and House. Anything that resembles a Green New Deal is likely to get filibustered by the Senate and face opposition from more moderate Democrats. However, in the building sector there are many opportunities to cut emissions that wouldn’t require a Congressional bill.
Using data from existing studies and the ResStock residential building simulation, we looked at how many building sector emissions could be cut based on the plans laid out by the Biden campaign. We’ve grouped them into the following categories: policies that would and wouldn’t require Congressional support.
Policies that would require Congressional support
There are three proposals in Biden’s plan to curb building emissions that would require a Congressional bill. And there’s evidence that all three have bipartisan support.
- Ratifying the Kigali Amendment — In 2020 emissions from hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the United States reached 250 million metric tons (in CO2 equivalents). There is currently bipartisan support for ratifying the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would cut emissions by a cumulative 9.5 billion metric tons by 2050. If Biden were elected, it’s likely that he would be able to ratify the Kigali Amendment.
- Repairing and accelerating the building code process — In 2019 a group of Republican and Democrat Senators introduced the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, a bill that aims to address current problems with the building code process. If the Senate were to pass this bill and Biden were to sign it in 2021 it would cut emissions by a cumulative 1.3 billion metric tons.
- Weatherizing 2 million homes over 4 years — As we wrote above, Biden committed to weatherizing 2 million homes over 4 years. Based on our analysis using the ResStock model, that would cut building emissions by a cumulative 166 million metric tons by 2050.
Policies that wouldn’t require Congressional support
Biden would also be able to cut building emissions through executive action and Department of Energy efficiency standards. However those policies would face intense legal opposition from manufacturers and trade groups. And if Justice Amy Coney Barrett is elected to the Supreme Court, those cases would be heard by a 6-3 conservative court.
- Appliance efficiency standards — Between 2008 and 2016, the Obama administration updated more than 40 appliance efficiency standards. Since then the Trump administration has fought to roll back many of them, and unsurprisingly have not passed any new regulations aimed at improving appliance efficiency standards. If a Biden administration were to update standards as the Obama administration did, they could cut emissions by 3.5 billion metric tons between now and 2050.
- Lighting efficiency standards — In 2016, the Obama administration announced plans to update lighting efficiency standards. In 2017 the Trump administration rolled back those regulations. A study by ACEEE found that if those standards were put back in place they could cut emissions by 1.7 billion metric tons by 2050.
There’s no doubt that the difference between a Biden administration and Trump administration would be stark. Whereas the Trump administration has fought for the last four years to roll back efficiency standards that save Americans money and reduce emissions, the Biden campaign writes in their Climate Plan that, “[Biden] will direct the U.S. Department of Energy to redouble efforts to accelerate new efficiency standards for household appliances and equipment.”
A Biden administration would also likely ratify the Kigali agreement, try to “repair and accelerate the building code process,” and include funding for building efficiency upgrades in a stimulus bill.
In total these emissions reductions could add up to 16 billion metric tons between now and 2050. Those emissions reductions—and jobs and utility bill savings—won’t materialize under a Trump administration.
But as our analysis of Biden’s plan shows, these reductions would fall far short of those needed to meet the Paris Agreement. His campaign writes that “Biden will set a target of reducing the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035.” Meeting that target would require upgrading 5 million residential buildings every year. The Biden team plans to upgrade a tenth that number—500,000 per year. And while it’s tempting to think that powering all those inefficient homes with renewables is a silver bullet, this ignores the fact that building emissions are a zero-sum game and the burden would simply shift to the already massive undertaking of creating a 100% clean grid.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump will likely continue to frame Biden’s climate plan as “radical.” But there’s no doubt: Biden’s Climate Plan is no Green New Deal.
How we calculated emissions reductions
Using NREL’s ResStock model we analyzed how many emissions could be reduced by weatherizing 2 million homes. We specifically looked at weatherizations where the net-present value was greater than 0 (i.e. cost-effective upgrades). According to the ResStock model, the average weatherization project can cut 3.3 metric tons per home per year. Therefore if 2 million weatherizations leads to a reduction of 6,641,530 metric tons annually.
The NREL model assumes no change in the grid’s carbon intensity. Of course, the grid is likely to continue to become less carbon intense as utilities retire coal plants and build renewable capacity. But any emissions reductions from a cleaner grid wouldn’t be attributed to weatherizations.
Of course, it’s theoretically possible to cut building sector emissions by 50% without any improvements in energy efficiency. But this would make an already massive task of transitioning America’s grid to 100% renewables even harder. Most experts agree that the path to zero emissions will require cleaning up the grid and improving building efficiency.
How we calculated economic activity and jobs created
In order to calculate economic activity, we multiplied the average cost per retrofit by the total number of retrofits. This gives us the total amount of money that would be spent on things like attic insulation, new windows, labor, parts, etc.
To calculate jobs created we used an assumption of 7.84 jobs created per $1m in economic activity based on the results of the Obama adminstration’s BBNP program and data from a recent paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy.
If you are a journalist and want access to any of the data used for this analysis or want to interview the author, please email michael (at) carbonswitch.co
About Carbon Switch
Carbon Switch is an energy efficiency startup that helps homeowners understand the carbon footprint of their home and identify ways to cut their energy use by as much as 50%.
We produce guides on the appliances that consume the most energy in a home like hot water heaters and recommend more energy efficient alternatives like a heat pump water heater, which can cut energy use by 80% and save homeowners about $5,000 over 10 years.
Later this year we’ll be launching an app that will help homeowners identify the energy efficiency upgrades that make the most sense based on their home and local climate. The app will also help homeowners find rebates and low-interest financing, something we hope will make these upgrades accessible to every homeowner no matter their income.
About the author
Michael Thomas is the Founder and Head of Research at Carbon Switch.
Prior to starting Carbon Switch, he contributed stories to magazines like The Atlantic, FastCompany, and Quartz. He’s also started a couple companies, one of which gives 50% of its profits to charity. The company expects to give away $200,000 next year.
He also has one of the most common names on planet Earth, which is why you will probably find more results for famous football players than the author of this paper on Google. This link to his LinkedIn will probably make things easier if you want to learn more about his background.