A New Policy Toolkit for Local Governments to Lead the Way on Zero Carbon Buildings

With climate change emerging as a top issue for voters in Washington State, there is renewed interest in energy-efficient housing and renewable energy as key strategies to mitigate climate change and rebuild local economies. Homes and commercial buildings are one of the largest contributors to overall greenhouse gas emissions, both locally and globally.

A newly updated Zero Carbon Buildings Policy Toolkit from Shift Zero has been published to help local governments accelerate the equitable adoption of healthy, ultra efficient zero carbon buildings. Zero carbon buildings maximize energy efficiency, eliminate fossil fuel use, minimize embodied carbon, and as practical, produce all their own energy through renewables.  The toolkit contains recommendations, resources and model policy language for cities and counties to draw from. 

Zero carbon building policies are a critical solution that local governments are uniquely positioned to deploy – not only to meet their goals for cutting emissions and fighting climate change, but also to help reverse decades of discrimination in local housing and land use policy that disproportionately impacts low income, people of color, and other frontline communities.  People who are systematically disadvantaged by pollution, poor housing conditions and high energy costs – in both urban and rural communities – are the same people hit worst by the pandemic and resulting economic dislocation.  Investing in high-performance building incentives and home energy retrofits can be an effective way for cities and counties to spur investment in a “just transition” i.e. training, job creation and economic development that proactively benefits these impacted communities.

Cities and counties in Washington are in a great position to hasten the development of healthy, climate-friendly homes and buildings, by offering incentives such as land-use bonuses, permitting incentives, or reduced fees or tax breaks, and by showing these goals are serving a greater public purpose. Local governments across the state have adopted incentives that tie eligibility for incentives to robust, verifiable green building certifications such as Built Green, LEED, Passive House and the Living Building Challenge.  The City of Seattle for example, used a combination of incentives, technical assistance and public-private partnerships to transform their residential market: well over 70% of new home construction is now Built Green certified.  The toolkit shows multiple examples of how these ideas can be adapted to the local context, and then adopted into code.

Now, just as the issue of climate change has reached an unprecedented level of national urgency,  the economics of green building and renewable energy have also become more affordable and profitable.  A variety of recent national and regional studies, as well as many local examples show that the cost premium to build a zero carbon, or zero-carbon ready home has shrunk to between 4-10% compared to standard methods, well within most buyers’ “willingness to pay” a little extra for long-term utility cost savings and a better building. Yet, there are significant market and regulatory obstacles that must be overcome – especially in communities outside the Seattle area, such as supply chain and workforce development needed so local builders can deliver ultra-efficient homes cost-effectively.  This is where incentives can fill the gap and help catalyze private sector leadership and development of a green building market.

The Shift Zero Zero Carbon Buildings Policy Toolkit is available at www.ShiftZero.org/Toolkit. For more information, contact info@shiftzero.org.

Thank you to the Shift Zero members and partners who contributed time and expertise to the development of the Policy Toolkit, and to Chris van Daalen from the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild for leading the effort!

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