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

What Does the Air in Our Homes Have To Do With the Climate Crisis?

States have a mandate to tackle indoor air pollution. Here’s how they can take advantage of new and existing funding to deliver for their communities.

Harry and Helen Hemingway in their energy-efficiency upgraded home in South Carolina. © 2016 Marcela Gara, Resource Media/EE Image Database/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Home is where the heart is.” 

“Home sweet home.” 

“East, west, home’s best.”

There are many ways to say it: Homes are supposed to be where we feel the safest. But for the majority of us, our homes run on fossil fuels that poison our indoor air and aggravate the climate crisis. Electrifying our buildings to eliminate dangerous indoor pollution from fossil fuels is the way forward, and even better, we can do so in ways that also address the nation’s housing crisis. 

Strengthening state and federal clean air regulations, while deploying funds from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), can enable us to decarbonize our homes, leading to improved housing and air quality across the country, particularly for Black, Brown, and lower-income communities, who are often disproportionately impacted by inadequate housing and air pollution. 


Electrifying Our Buildings Can Improve Health Equity and Housing Quality  

The energy needed to run our buildings generates between a fifth and a third of the nation’s carbon pollution (depending on how you count upstream energy production emissions). That’s a big climate problem, however you count it. 

And worse, recent research has found that appliances that burn fossil fuels like boilers, water heaters, and gas stoves work like “mini fossil fuel plants” inside our homes, driving up indoor air pollution and harming our wellbeing. In fact, fossil fuel appliances in the U.S. emit more nitrogen oxides (a deadly form of air pollution) than all of our nation’s fossil gas power plants combined. The toxic pollutants released from these appliances have been linked to lung and heart disease, asthma, and increased cancer rates. Think of it like a car’s tailpipe running right into your living room. 

Addressing these challenges will take coordinated regulation from the local to the federal level, particularly to address disparities in housing quality underlying the unequal burden of indoor air pollution. Black, Brown, and lower-income communities that have suffered most from historic redlining should have priority access to clean technology and financing. Racially discriminatory housing policy through redlining not only limited the ability of people of color to build wealth through homeownership but is also linked to poor housing quality and higher rates of air pollution and asthma today

Blog Post Image - Asthma/Respiratory Illness

 Appliances like boilers, water heaters, and gas stoves work like “mini fossil fuel plants.” The toxic pollutants released from these appliances have been linked to lung and heart disease, asthma, and increased cancer rates. © 2009 KristyFaith/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The practice of racist housing policy has resulted in formerly redlined communities experiencing higher rates of air pollution and higher rates of asthma today. In this way, building decarbonization can help alleviate the impacts of deep housing inequality in ways that also help keep residents safe and in quality homes with clean indoor air. Weaning our buildings off fossil fuels by pursuing air pollution regulations will be central to taking climate action and addressing the nation's housing quality inequities.

Evergreen has previously called on federal agencies to enact standards that would increase appliance efficiency while limiting harmful indoor air pollutants. But progress on these actions has been slow-moving. That’s because building pollution is regulated differently than other sectors of the economy.

In contrast to power plants, for example, which are formally listed as sources of pollution by the government, indoor appliances, like HVACs and cooling systems, are not. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explicitly states that it “does not regulate indoor air.” This gives building owners the discretion to decide what powers their appliances, which can lead to continued fossil fuel use absent regulation and/or incentives for adopting cleaner alternatives.   

Despite evidence of the negative effects of fossil fuel appliances on environmental and public health, indoor air quality is essentially unregulated at the federal level. In fact, federal action is just starting. Several Department of Energy (DOE) energy efficiency rules for appliances are in the process of being finalized, including regulations around high-polluting appliances like gas stoves and water heaters. And EPA has yet to designate fossil fuel appliances as a source of national clean appliance standards under the Clean Air Act, despite prior calls to do so. The good news is recent action taken by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) can increase energy efficiency standards in some federally subsidized affordable housing. But, much is left to do. The progress made at the federal level does not match the pace needed to ensure a swift and just energy transition.  

The administration has little time to make bold moves to decarbonize our buildings in Biden’s first term. However, many states are well-positioned to continue the push forward on this issue over the next several years, and luckily, existing regulatory frameworks and new program funding can help bring us back on track to address our compounding climate, health, and housing crises.  


How State Leadership and Accelerated Federal Action Can Help Clean Up Buildings

Using both provisions within the Clean Air Act and the IRA, federal, state, and local leaders can collaborate to move us forward. By weaving together clean air planning and IRA programs in equity-focused ways, we can upgrade our buildings through place-based strategies. Here’s how.

Indoor pollution from buildings does not stay indoors. It moves outside, leading to smog formation and particle pollution that can cause asthma, heart disease, and other health risks. EPA oversees state CAA planning to meet outdoor air standards and it is in the process of tightening up those standards for smog and particulate matter to reflect the most up-to-date scientific evidence, which increasingly shows that air pollution is even more dangerous than we thought. That means that states have multiple chances—and a federal mandate—to tighten building pollution rules.

States have been taking the lead in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, improving air quality, and addressing housing quality issues through appliance standards and building codes. Nineteen states have enacted their own energy efficiency standards for dozens of common appliances and several more have pending legislation under consideration. Others have already adopted the most up-to-date building codes, which set minimum requirements on energy efficiency for new construction and substantial renovation of residential and commercial buildings. And direct rules limiting or barring polluting combustion appliances are popping up all over the country.  

Blog Post Image - Stove

 Direct state rules limiting or barring polluting appliances that burn fossil fuels are popping up all over the country. © 2014 Oregon State University/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

That’s a big deal because the Clean Air Act generally requires each state and EPA region to implement best-in-class pollution controls in each planning cycle, based on the development of rules and technology nationally. Good policy in one part of the country should be considered and replicated in plans across the country. So, when the EPA reviews plans for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), regulating ozone and particulate matter, it has a chance to work with state and local leaders to decrease air pollution from buildings. And that’s just what’s happening. 

A recent development in the San Joaquin Valley region of California shows how the Clean Air Act rules can be leveraged to advance climate action. Because the San Joaquin Valley region had particulate matter above EPA’s allowable threshold (called nonattainment), it had to resubmit its state implementation plan (SIP) to address its pollution levels. 

After the San Joaquin Valley region submitted its SIP, EPA determined that the proposed control measures for addressing particulate matter didn’t go far enough, because they didn’t consider zero-emissions technologies for heating systems, even though they were already readily available elsewhere. This means that, by extension, regions across the country will face a strong federal push to clean up pollution, to the benefit of everyone breathing indoor (and outdoor) air pollution from buildings.

While EPA has not yet finalized the status of San Joaquin Valley’s SIP, the science and law are clear—and each time a SIP is due in an area not attaining air quality  standards, there’s an opportunity to clean our air and upgrade our buildings with more efficient–and healthier– appliances. For example, California’s statewide SIP now includes a commitment to adopt zero-emissions appliance standards—further demonstrating that zero-emissions appliances can and should play a role in improving air quality under the Clean Air Act. 

Other nonattainment areas—those that have not achieved current or past NAAQS—also have the opportunity to take similar action to strengthen existing nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) standards. There are several upcoming SIP deadlines for ozone nonattainment areas, including Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia. By EPA’s logic, these areas should consider zero-emissions appliances in the suite of measures they submit in these plans. In doing so, states can commit to reducing pollution, as mandated by the CAA, while simultaneously decreasing fossil fuel pollution, and improving the health and housing outcomes of their residents. 

States that are in compliance with federal air quality standards can also go further.  States can enact stricter standards through their SIP, in support of maintaining their attainment status for existing air quality standards. They can also pursue stricter regulations outside of the SIP process by designing and implementing their own standards that go above and beyond those required by the current NAAQS. Strengthening these standards is good for states that have yet to comply with them—and states that are already making progress can go even further to protect the health and safety of their residents.

All of this regional progress can set the stage for national action by showing how we can decarbonize buildings under existing regulatory authorities. And state and local leaders can push that action forward via another lesser-known power granted to states under section 111(g) of the CAA, which allows governors to petition EPA to set standards for new sources of air pollution, like fossil fuel appliances. To date, no governor has exercised this authority. Submitting this petition would jumpstart the process for more formal regulation of fossil fuel appliances nationally.  

These authorities will be essential for cleaning up our air and improving housing quality by increasing access to cleaner household appliances. 

Blog Post Image - Energy Efficiency

 Rocco Solano (left) learning about energy efficiency during their home’s energy audit in Colorado. Federal funding for states will be key to addressing climate and housing quality. © 2013 Dennis Schroeder, NREL/EE Image Database/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

IRA Funding Can Be Used to Support Safer, Cleaner Homes

But it’s not just about clean air. It’s about addressing housing quality in communities across the country. And that’s where the IRA comes in. With Clean Air Act legal authorities in their toolbox, states can also align IRA funding to support implementation of air quality and appliance standards to transition to zero-emission buildings.

IRA investments, if spent equitably, can play a role in reversing decades of disinvestment in neglected communities by pairing IRA investments with the Clean Air Act planning process. For example, the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants Program gives much-needed funding for planning and implementing programs targeting clean appliances. And the Home Energy Rebate Program can target financial assistance to low-income households for appliance upgrades.   

And states have already begun setting themselves up for success. In June, Governor Maura Healy invested $50 million in the new Massachusetts Community Climate Bank, establishing a first-of-its-kind green bank to attract IRA financing for affordable housing retrofits and new construction in line with the state’s climate goals. New York State followed suit with a recent $20 million investment in its State Energy Financing Fund, aimed at securing affordable financing for projects reducing climate pollution from the built environment, including buildings, in disadvantaged communities. As new IRA programs ramp up, we can expect even more state-led initiatives like these to drive equitable decarbonization initiatives across the country.

Pairing existing regulatory authorities with these new federal investments can be a win-win-win for the climate, public health, and housing quality. With these tools, states can chart a path forward in the face of uncertainty around federal regulation.