On February 6, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution targeting drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions from commercial and residential buildings—the latest step by the nation’s second-largest city to shrink the environmental footprint of its built environment.
The measure gives L.A.’s Building and Safety Department and the Department of Water and Power (DWP) 90 days to recommend methods for reducing reliance on natural gas and shifting toward electricity from clean sources for heating, water heating, and cooking; and requires DWP to set ambitious goals for building electrification in 2028 and 2038. The targets are in line with mayor Eric Garcetti’s aggressive sustainability plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent before 2035. “Our vision for L.A. is to be fossil fuel-free, and we need building electrification to make this vision a reality,” says Lauren Faber O’Connor, L.A.’s chief sustainability officer. Currently, the L.A. region burns more fossil fuels in its buildings than in its power plants.
The two departments tasked with the 90-day study may recommend changing local building codes, or crafting incentives for adopting efficient electric-powered building technologies, says Maria Stamas, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and energy programs. The DWP, the nation’s largest public utility, must also include the new electrification goals in its planning, “which will create internal pressure to invest in electrification so it can meet anticipated future demand,” she says.
Like L.A., forward-thinking U.S. cities have been taking a leadership role in mitigating climate change, many acting even before the current administration’s 2017 decision to withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement. These cities are using a mix of regulatory measures and incentive programs to slash energy use and curb carbon emissions from buildings, says Tim Pryce, energy and buildings program director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a global initiative focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. New York is in the process of passing legislation requiring owners to retrofit existing buildings greater than 25,000 square feet to meet minimum energy efficiency standards. In addition, New York and several other cities, including Denver and Minneapolis, have adopted broad “80x50” mandates to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050. In April 2016, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to approve legislation requiring rooftop solar on new buildings with 10 or fewer stories. In Boston, a voluntary program for property owners called The Mayor’s Carbon Cup asks participants to commit to a 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 for at least one million square feet of building space; through 2016, participants have cut their emissions by 52 percent compared to their baselines.
Back in L.A., the move by City Council is a welcome shift from setting ambitious targets toward outlining steps needed to reach them, says Leigh Christy, an associate principal in the local office of Perkins+Will. “Of course, we as architects should still design buildings for maximum energy efficiency, with tight building envelopes and reduced heating and cooling loads to curb emissions,” she says. “But any measure that aims to reduce the use of fossil fuels is a step in the right direction.”