Jan 26, 2024 - Climate

Seattle's big buildings must reach net-zero emissions by 2050

Cities and states that have instituted "building performance standards," which limit the amount of greenhouse gases that buildings can emit. Map: Courtesy of the Institute for Market Transformation

Seattle is among a few U.S. jurisdictions aggressively targeting air pollution from buildings with a new city law that will require large buildings to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Why it matters: Statewide, buildings account for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change, according to Washington's Department of Commerce.

  • In Seattle, buildings are responsible for more than a third of the city's carbon emissions, the city estimates, much of which comes from burning fossil fuels for heating and electricity.

By the numbers: The new building efficiency standards Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell signed into law last month are expected to reduce Seattle's building sector emissions by 27% — and overall citywide emissions by 10% — by 2050.

The big picture: Seattle is one of only nine cities and counties nationwide that have adopted this type of building performance standard, according to the Institute for Market Transformation, which tracks and advocates for such laws.

  • In 2019, Washington became the first U.S. state to enact such a standard and is one of only four states to have done so. But Seattle officials say the city's new policy will help decarbonize the city's buildings even faster.

What they're saying: "Seattle and Washington state are leading the way," Cliff Majersik, IMT's senior adviser for policy and programs, told Axios Seattle.

  • "There is every reason to think that they will be the first region of the country to have fully decarbonized buildings," he added, citing the region's mild climate and access to clean hydropower as advantages.

Of note: The city standards are separate from the state's new energy-efficient building codes, which will affect new construction but not most existing buildings.

  • Some of the ways building owners can reduce emissions include installing more energy-efficient appliances and lighting, improving insulation and switching to electric heat pumps.

Details: Under the new city rules, existing buildings over 20,000 square feet will have to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets starting in 2031 or face noncompliance fees of up to $10 per square foot.

  • Timelines vary by type of building. Commercial buildings will be required to reach net-zero emissions between 2041 and 2046, and multifamily residential buildings between 2046 and 2050.
  • A few exceptions are allowed, such as fossil fuel-powered backup generators in hospitals.
  • "We built in a little room to give people a little more time to change over their gas cooking stoves, for example," Jessyn Farrell, director of Seattle's Office of Sustainability & Environment, told Axios.

Zoom in: Seattle's policy offers more flexibility for building owners than similar regulations that recently went into effect in New York City, Majersik said.

  • But local building owners are still worried about the noncompliance fees and the costs of taking the final steps toward net-zero emissions, Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association Seattle King County, told Axios.
  • "For newer buildings, they are not that far from compliance. For older buildings, it's going to be challenging," Kauffman said.

What's next: Farrell said the city will hammer out some of the "nitty-gritty" compliance details in a rulemaking process that begins later this year.

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