Chicago, indoor-emissions standard
Chicago is considering new indoor-emissions standards that would ban the use of fossil fuels indoors. Photo credit: Illustration by WhoWhatyWhy from Soumith Soman / Pexels and Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

Buildings are Chicago’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, but efforts to decarbonize them are facing union opposition.

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Chicago could soon be the first major Midwestern city with an indoor-emissions standard that would make gas-powered appliances and heating systems a thing of the past. 

The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance, introduced by Mayor Brandon Johnson during the first city council meeting of the year last week, would effectively phase out fossil fuel-based appliances and heating systems in new construction and substantially improved buildings. The new rule would take effect within a year of approval.

“This is an opportunity not just to address climate, but we can build an entire economy around it,” Johnson said.

Not everyone is convinced. 

Earlier this month, two aldermen successfully sidelined Chicago’s electrification ordinance by referring it to the rules committee, a tactic often used to obstruct ordinances with procedural delays. Once referred out of the rules committee, the ordinance will have to make it through the zoning and environmental committees before heading to the city council for a full vote. 

Some of the state’s most influential gas and construction unions are openly arrayed against the passage of the indoor-emissions standard. Together, they’re calling for further trials and studies into the costs of implementing the proposed rule.  

“Homeowners should not have to choose affordability over going green,” said Kristine Kavanagh, who is with International Union of Engineers Local 150. “They should have options for both clean and affordable energy.”

As the mayor and his allies see it, the push for building electrification in Chicago is part of a broader project to not just wean the city off fossil fuels, but also begin to address the cumulative health impacts of indoor air pollution and burdensome utility bills. The effort was a key recommendation of the city’s Building Decarbonization Policy Working Group back in 2022. The report determined that buildings are Chicago’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — nearly 70 percent. 

“The Clean Affordable Buildings Act is the first step in a managed, planned process to move away from dirty, expensive gas and embrace a cheaper, cleaner energy future for all Chicagoans,” said Alderperson Maria Hadden, who represents the 49th Ward on the south side of the city. 

Cities across the country are looking at building electrification as a pathway to cutting planet-warming emissions. Since the first-of-its-kind electrification ordinance was introduced in Berkeley, California, in 2019, more than 100 local governments have adopted similar policies. Major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle have all gotten on board to rework building codes to prioritize electrification for new construction. Very soon, Chicago could be next. 

But the surge in local electrification policies has faced significant opposition. Berkeley’s electrification ordinance was overturned by a federal appeals panel last year. Over 20 states have passed legislation effectively prohibiting municipalities from banning natural gas connections.  

In a statement to Grist, Peoples Gas, the major gas utility that serves the Chicago area said, “This proposed ordinance would increase costs and risk reliability for everyone, especially during the coldest days of the year like Chicago has been seeing.” 

But Chicago’s utility bills are already unmanageable. This past November, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved a $302 million rate hike for Peoples Gas that is expected to make Chicago gas customers’ utility bills more expensive than they already are; approximately 1 in 5 Chicagoans are more than 30 days behind on their gas bills. 

“We don’t want to just trade one energy source for another,” Angela Tovar, the city’s chief sustainability officer said. She called the proposed policy “fuel neutral” — a key point for Tovar and others who helped draft the ordinance. They want to avoid the legal challenges that plagued the original iteration of electrification efforts, many of which were outright bans on gas hookups. A handful of those have already been withdrawn

Following the lead of New York City, Chicago’s workaround instead takes aim at indoor air pollution by limiting the combustion of any substance that emits 25 kilograms or more of carbon dioxide per million British thermal units of energy. In the process, the new standard would make natural gas-powered appliances obsolete and encourage the adoption of electric stoves and heating systems. The ordinance does, however, carve out a list of exemptions including emergency generators, health care facilities, and commercial kitchens. 

Illinois set a goal to sunset fossil fuels by 2050. Oak Park, a Chicago suburb with a population just over 50,000, took the lead last summer and passed the first electrification standards of any local government in the Midwest. Oak Park architect Tom Bassett-Dilley said enthusiasm for living fossil fuel-free is already obvious. 

“We don’t do any buildings that have gas lines in them anymore for the last three or four years,” Bassett-Dilley said. “There’s a lot of people out there looking for it, the demand has definitely skyrocketed.”

Allies of Chicago’s new emissions standard call it a reasonable first step toward hitting the state’s climate goals and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. 

“Equitable decarbonization is a core principle that guides us in the introduction of this policy, as well as future actions as a city,” Tovar said. “We must design better outcomes that work for every building type and every neighborhood across Chicago. We must ensure that the benefits of transitioning to clean energy sources are accessible to all regardless of your zip code.”

This story by Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco was originally published by Grist and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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