The Cancun Climate Summit organizers -- escaping frigid temperatures in Europe and North America -- have announced that "more nations may agree to cut emissions." It is easy to dismiss the climate change activists in international and national bodies who keep up a charade of playing in a game they have already lost. These goals are rarely met, and the unrealistic pledges are for the most part ignored as soon as their junkets end. We should not, however, be complacent. Progress (if you can call it that) is being made in state and municipal governments through a clever mechanism: residential and commercial building codes.
Building codes are controlled by public safety bureaucracies, such as the Department of Public Safety in my home state of Massachusetts. They thus have an existing enforcement power: follow the rules or you don't get a building permit. Break the rules and you're in trouble. So far, building codes govern only new construction and renovations, but the next step might be to mandate retrofitting existing buildings.
In 2009, Massachusetts gave municipalities the option of adopting more stringent standards for energy efficiency with a new appendix to the state building code known as the Stretch Energy Code. According to the Department of Energy Resources, sixty-three Massachusetts towns have adopted these more stringent codes, earning them the "Green Communities" label. Green Communities are eligible for additional state grant funding, which no doubt played a role in the decision-making. Furthermore, local city councils frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their municipal global warming legislation -- Cambridge's Climate Protection Plan, for instance -- have seized upon climate building codes as a solution with teeth. One source reports that the more stringent standards will be mandatory statewide in Massachusetts by 2012. Similar codes such as the 2008 Building Energy Efficiency Standards went into effect statewide in California on Jan. 1, 2010.
As a disclaimer, it is important to point out that much of the new code simply reflects good building practices. Builders report that often the houses they built before the new codes came into effect would pass a stretch code inspection. Very few people object to commonsense measures like insulating houses and installing efficient appliances and furnaces.
One could argue that building codes could be regulated by industry rather than government, but it is undeniable that building standards are a valid way to educate honest builders and to protect consumers from unscrupulous or unknowledgeable contractors. We all want our electricians to install wiring properly, with GFCI outlets next to sinks, and we don't want our children endangered by faulty railings. None of us wants to be harmed by commercial builders like the Chinese construction firm that cut corners by neglecting to put rebar in the foundation of a thirteen-story building, which, in June 2009 predictably toppled like a tree being cut down.
The Stretch Energy Code is not the first government program to encourage energy conservation. The Massachusetts Energy Star and the LEED green certification programs overlap with the Stretch Code in many areas, but the former were voluntary, while the Stretch Code is mandatory. Government weatherization programs for existing housing are voluntary and paid for by government -- free stuff from the government stash! Some local edicts like the Cambridge Climate Protection Plan mandated measures to lower energy use in City Hall and other city properties, but this had little effect on private citizens.
The Stretch Energy Code, however, is a departure from traditional building codes; despite being issued by the Department of Public Safety, it has nothing to do with safety. It extends mandatory control over privately owned property based on the theory that global warming is a crisis that demands that all citizens contribute to the solution. It represents a major step in the expansion of government control over the small decisions that citizens make in their private lives.
The prescient Alexis de Tocqueville warned in 1840 of the danger of a "soft despotism" where the government "covers the surface of society with a network of small[,] complicated rules." A few small, complicated rules appear in the Stretch Energy Code:
-- Section 502.3.2: "For skylights, the limit is set at 3% of roof area." For a 1,600-square-foot roof (40 x 20 x 2), the limit would be 48 sq. ft. of skylights, or six to eight small skylights. My own renovated third-floor attic currently has eight small skylights, and I had been thinking of installing two more. (Too late now.) Clearly, a skylight is a less efficient barrier than an insulated roof. But if I choose to pay marginally higher heating bills in order to bring light and air into my house, what business is it of the government? And isn't it possible that the added ventilation might reduce my summer air-conditioning usage?
-- Section 507.2.3: "the building ... shall incorporate an on-site renewable energy system that supplies 3% or more of total building electrical loads." Windmills and biomass aren't likely solutions in urban settings. We therefore have a law on the books requiring new construction to install expensive and inefficient solar panels. Is this even constitutional?
-- Table 505.5.2 of the code establishes "interior lighting power allowances." An "allowance" is something that parents give their children, which reminds me of the de Tocqueville quote: "[The government] would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood."
A residential kitchen is rewarded a high interior lighting power allowance of 1.6 watts per square foot (reduced to 1.4 in some municipalities). A kitchen measuring 15 feet by 10 feet is therefore allowed 240 watts of lighting, or four 60-watt bulbs. Since this is woefully insufficient, your only choice would be to use compact fluorescent light bulbs, which do not perform well in recessed kitchen fixtures.
A century and a half ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached self-reliance in Massachusetts. Today's legislators treat citizens like dependent children who have to be told how many lights they need in their kitchens. De Tocqueville noted that we entrust the people with the awesome responsibility of electing our leaders, but "to manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted, the people are held to be unequal to the task." It is not the role, nor the right, of our government to mandate energy efficiency solutions in private homes.