Mayor Harrell signed the Building Emissions Performance Standard into law on December 13, 2023. (City of Seattle)

On Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell signed legislation that promises to eventually reduce Seattle’s climate emissions by 10%. Passed unanimously by the Seattle City Council on Tuesday, the new Building Emissions Performance Standard will require that existing buildings take significant steps to curb their emissions. It also provided some funding to aid building owners in planning the electrification and green building retrofits necessary to comply with the law.

The building sector accounts for 37% of Seattle’s emissions according to the City’s most recent inventory, making it the second largest source after transportation, which accounted for 61% of emissions in 2020. While the policy exempts single-family homes and industrial buildings, it would apply to commercial and residential buildings greater than 20,000 square feet. The City estimates about 4,135 buildings will be affected.

“The policy would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing large buildings by approximately 325,000 metric tons by 2050 – a 27% decrease in building related emissions from a 2008 baseline or the equivalent of taking 72,322 gasoline-powered cars off the road for a year,” the mayor’s office touted in a statement.

The Building Emissions Performance Standard (BEPS) sets carbon-emissions targets that become progressively lower in five-year intervals until reaching the goal of net-zero emissions in affected buildings by 2050. Compliance starts in 2027 with reporting requirements that quantify building emissions, followed by requirements to meet emissions targets by 2031. The largest buildings will face more accelerated timelines, as the City has devised “flexible compliance pathways to accommodate buildings of many uses, size, type, ownership, age, and systems, with low-income housing and human services given a longer lead time to prepare.”

“Addressing greenhouse gas emissions is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold said in a statement. “Future generations will look back to this moment and judge us by what we did today to address our climate crisis. We experience the impacts here in Seattle: extreme heat, drought, and forest fire haze during the summer and even autumn has become normal. It’s time for us to take big swings and make sure we’re doing everything we can — for ourselves and for all future generations of Seattleites.”

In 2021, Seattle passed a major energy code reform ratcheting up efficiency and climate performance on new construction. BEPS is the companion piece that looks at existing large buildings. Homebuilders complained that the energy code adds major costs to new buildings, but backers hope the cost differential will come down as builders get more familiar with green building techniques and that long-term energy savings will more than offset the upfront cost.

Mayor Harrell said the new policy for existing buildings “continues Seattle’s leadership on climate action.” His statement also underscored green jobs. “This bold legislation will not only create cleaner buildings for people to live, work, and play in, but also hundreds of local jobs and build pathways to careers in the green economy.”

As The Urbanist reported, this summer climate advocates seemed worried that the City was dragging its feet and watering down BEPS implementation timelines, particularly for commercial buildings, which had faster timelines in an earlier draft. As business leaders pushed for delay, some worried the policy’s passage was in doubt. However, continued pressure and advocacy from environmental groups such as 350 Seattle and Sierra Club helped close the deal. Shemona Moreno, who is executive director of 350 Seattle, celebrated passage Wednesday in a statement.

“350 Seattle is delighted by the Committee for Climate Action’s decision to pass the Building Emissions Performance Standard,” Moreno said. “We hope it sets a precedent for future Green New Deal policies and appreciate the hard work and thoughtful partnership from the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment. We need more climate policies like the BEPS; policies that meet Seattle’s climate goals while creating more green jobs, fostering climate resilience, affordable housing and transportation.”

Supporters pointed out that phasing out fossil fuel heating will improve indoor air quality.

“To protect public health and mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis, Seattle must transition off fossil fuels like polluting fracked gas,” said Dylan Plummer, campaign representative with Sierra Club. “Developing strong and enforceable Building Emissions Performance Standards and requiring large buildings to make the switch from dirty fuels is a critical step to protect our climate and reduce indoor and outdoor air pollution and will offer a model for other cities in the region to follow.”  

Installing heat pumps to replace dated, inefficient heating and cooling systems is likely to be the primary way buildings comply with the law, though exact compliance pathways are not prescribed. The City is offering help for building owners to find the pathway that works best for their situation.

“Building owners and operators are also encouraged to check out the Seattle Clean Buildings Accelerator program which provides technical support and funding for upgrades and register for upcoming info sessions,” the mayor’s office wrote. “Mayor Harrell included $4.5 [million] per year to support the Accelerator program in the 2024 proposed budget for engineering and capital investments, prioritized for buildings in or serving frontline communities, as well as an additional $530,000 for BEPS implementation.”

It’s unclear how landlords will respond. Compliance costs could push some building owners to redevelop instead of retrofit. Retrofit costs could be passed along to tenants, potentially in dramatic fashion given Washington State prohibition on rent control and stabilization measures. However, lower utility costs and cleaner air could also be a boon to tenants.

How exactly implementation and enforcement will work will also hinge on a Director’s Rule that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections will develop.

“With the passage of this legislation, the City’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE) will next conduct the required public process to develop the Director’s Rule, which will provide detailed compliance guidance for building owners,” the mayor’s office wrote. “OSE expects this process to kick-off in Q2 2024 and wrap in 2025. OSE will concurrently issue early guidance to owners on how to estimate their building’s existing emissions and future emissions targets, so that they can use this information to plan and implement emissions reduction projects.”

While the Harrell administration pledges the new building standard will be like taking “72,322 gasoline-powered cars off the road” by 2050, Seattle’s climate efforts have lagged when it comes to tackling transportation emissions and taking literal cars off the road. Transit continues to operate at lower frequencies than before the pandemic and an epidemic of serious car crashes has intensified, which discourages Seattleites from leaving their cars behind to travel by more vulnerable modes: walking, rolling, and biking. Electric vehicles are an insufficient fix without more people riding transit, walking, and biking. Much work remains to tackle the climate crisis.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.