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We’re leading an all-out national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.

Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

Buildings Are a Huge Source of Climate Pollution. Here’s What Biden Can Do.

Here are the four actions the Biden administration must take within the next year to cut building sector pollution

President Biden shaking a student's hand in a classroom.

We don’t often think of our homes, schools, or workplaces as sources of climate pollution, but they make up about 30 percent of our country’s total greenhouse gas pollution if you include electricity use. And though the Biden administration and leading states have begun to tackle this problem, time is running out as the president’s first term enters its last year. 

Appliances that burn fossil fuels—like boilers, stoves, and others that we take for granted—are a public health crisis. Combined, fossil fuel appliances in the U.S. emit 450,000 tons of nitrogen oxides. For context, that’s more than all of the country’s fossil gas power plants combined. That’s like having an indoor tailpipe directly in your home. 

Worse, Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors inhaling this pollution, and then are harmed again when it leaks or is vented outside, forming smog. You can see why tackling pollution from our buildings is absolutely necessary if we want to build healthier communities and a healthier planet.


President Biden Must Act Before the End of His First Term

Fortunately, the Biden administration has taken steps to address this type of pollution and set the stage for enacting bold climate policies in the building sector. The administration has finalized several standards to increase the energy efficiency of our appliances, announced a building performance standard for federal buildings, and taken steps to ensure that new funding can be put to use to accelerate the energy transition for the buildings sector. But this is just the start. The administration needs to act in the coming year to ensure that these efforts spread throughout the states and the country.

With funding for new programs beginning to flow to states through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), there is a need to pair these investments with strong policies to ensure that we can reduce carbon and air pollution from buildings—and do so equitably. Three agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—are the key players in getting this done. And while each has taken initial steps, it’s critical for them to go further right now. Here’s how they can get this work across the finish line over the next year. 


4 Buildings Priorities for the Biden Administration

1. EPA: Encourage states to adopt appliance pollution standards

With heating appliances emitting more NOx than power plants in some states, this will be a critical lever for meeting existing air pollution requirements, while advancing our climate goals. There is a huge opportunity to spread best-in-class appliance pollution standards nationally over the next year. EPA is reviewing plans from states across the country on how they will clean the air to comply with the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

NAAQS limit pollution from nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and ozone, among other pollutants; states plan to meet the NAAQS “State Implementation Plans” (also known as SIPS), which EPA reviews and approves, that lay out the standards and investments needed to comply with the CAA.  The key point is that state plans are supposed to incorporate the best standards set in any state to control air pollution. 

Administrator Michael Regan delivering remarks at a podium.

Pictured: EPA Administrator Regan. EPA could spread best-in-class appliance pollution standards nationally through state CAA compliance plans.

States like California, Texas, and Utah have already taken action to regulate emissions from residential appliances using their CAA authorities; so have leading regions, including the Bay Area, which has just set nation-leading zero-emission appliance standards. That means all states and regions with similar air quality challenges—which is most of them!—should also be considering those standards in their plans. 

Yet, these pollution control measures have not yet been adopted by all states—including many states with plans either due to EPA soon or under review by EPA now. Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Nevada, and several other states are all currently working with EPA to demonstrate how they will comply with ozone pollution standards. That means we have a major opportunity as plans are reviewed over the coming year: EPA can and must work with states to ensure that strong pollution control measures can be put to use by other states—especially those that are not currently meeting NAAQS standards. 

The Biden administration can help to catalyze this, by compelling EPA at the federal and regional levels to work with state air agencies to ensure that appliance emissions standards are considered within their State Implementation Plans (SIPs)

A key first step will be finalizing its decision to require these standards in the heavily polluted Central Valley of California, as we have highlighted earlier. But many states have this opportunity. EPA can help states adopt advanced emissions standards under the CAA and provide guidance to states on complying with the national standards.

2. HUD: Finalize energy efficiency standards for affordable housing

Just as EPA can elevate state efforts on air quality right now, housing regulators can act to ensure that builders accelerate their efforts—immediately. HUD has a little-known, yet impactful tool to improve energy efficiency standards in one-fifth of all new federally-supported houses being built. This would slash carbon pollution, save households thousands of dollars in energy costs, and improve public health. But in order to do so, it needed to officially determine that the codes wouldn’t harm housing availability and affordability. 

Secretary Fudge delivering remarks at a podium.

Pictured: HUD Secretary Fudge. HUD must finalize their decision to update federal building codes and improve energy efficiency standards.

After delaying this process for years, HUD released a draft determination to update federal building codes on May 18, 2023, finding that improving energy efficiency would not negatively impact affordability and availability of housing under the regulation. The public comment period for this determination ended on August 7, 2023, and during it, we reiterated our support for this decision, alongside our partners. 

But this determination is preliminary, meaning that it still must be finalized by HUD before it can go into effect. The administration must move quickly to finalize this determination with the clock ticking on President Biden’s first term and a dwindling period of time to avoid a Congressional Review Act window.

3. DOE: Finalize key appliance efficiency standards 

In addition to appliance pollution standards, there are also appliance efficiency standards that need updating. While the former is focused on limiting or eliminating emissions of toxic pollutants as required by the Clean Air Act, the latter requires DOE to target energy efficiency standards under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA). 

Under EPCA, DOE is tasked with setting efficiency standards for more than 60 types of appliances. Under the Trump administration, DOE had missed 28 deadlines for updating these standards, leaving the Biden administration with a significant backlog to work through—on top of regular deadlines that come due every 6 years

The Biden administration must therefore continue working quickly to put us back on track for updating standards for key appliances—like consumer cooking products (including gas stoves) and residential water heaters. The rule for cooking products is set to be completed in January 2024 (though these rulemakings can take up to three years to finalize on average), while the public comment period for water heaters ended in September 2023, moving it one step closer to finalization. 

Increasing the efficiency of these—and other—common appliances will be important for decreasing air and carbon pollution from buildings. And with subsidies becoming available from new IRA investments, communities will have additional support to drive adoption of cleaner appliances, once these standards go into effect. The Biden administration should act quickly to finalize these standards well before their scheduled due dates in late 2024 to ensure that buildings are healthy and sustainable in communities across the country. 

Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaking at the White House.

Pictured: DOE Secretary Granholm. DOE can finalize stronger energy efficiency standards for key appliances, like gas stoves and water heaters.

4. Biden administration: Guide states on equitable IRA implementation 

It’s no secret that the IRA is the single largest climate investment in United States history. Now, the implementation of these new programs is taking center stage. Quickly launching these programs requires significant capacity from states and other eligible recipients—and support in the form of guidance from the federal government. 

For some IRA programs that focus on the buildings sector, states currently lack adequate guidance on key program design questions that could help them target and maximize the impact of these resources. With state Climate Pollution Reduction Grant programs being developed now, along with State Implementation Plans, that guidance is critically important to get out.

As an example, DOE released updated guidance for the Home Energy Rebate Programs in October 2023, but these function as a “floor” for state energy offices (SEOs)—meaning that they can go above and beyond these minimum requirements. It stipulates that SEOs should incorporate a minimum set-aside of 10 percent for multifamily housing in their programs. 

But SEOs still need guidance on how to cater to the diversity of different multifamily housing types, and design considerations that decide to pursue higher set-asides. Additional guidance for these and other IRA programs will be central for streamlining and simplifying the program design process for program administrators, so that they can quickly deliver these investments to communities across the country. 

Beyond this, the administration is also obligated to ensure that these funds are equitably implemented, under the Justice40 Initiative. Recent tools released by HUD and the Department of Treasury are useful starting points for helping to better target these building sector programs to disadvantaged communities, but the Administration must work to ensure that states and funding recipients are set up for success to do so. 


Now Is the Time To Clean up Pollution From Buildings

Cleaning up buildings means weaving together standards, investments, and justice— and the Biden administration has all those tools before it right now. The Clean Air Act can tee up key clean air standards, while HUD’s work can bring the building sector on board, even as major federal funds flow—if the states get clear guidance and a vision. 

Every one of these tools is in play right now and has to be used in the coming year. It is time for the administration to use all its tools to clean up our buildings and climate and help rebuild and revitalize our communities.