Why a State-Led Coalition to Install More Heat Pumps Is a Big Deal for Climate Change

If you’ve walked the blustery streets of Manhattan in January, chances are you’ve seen rows of open windows despite the subzero temperatures. That’s because many of New York City’s older buildings get oppressively hot inside come wintertime due to century-old radiator designs that don’t allow tenants to adjust the thermostat.

In fact, the overheated apartments were built that way intentionally—believe it or not—to help New Yorkers combat the Spanish Flu, which was devastating much of the country in the early 1920s and killed as many as 20,000 people in New York City alone. The heating systems were designed to keep buildings hot even if all the windows were open during winter in order to keep air circulation flowing and curb the spread of disease.

Today, some 80 percent of New York City residential multifamily buildings are heated by these older steam systems, which is a serious problem considering the city is trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared to 2005 levels by midcentury. With so many New Yorkers blatantly wasting heat all winter long, it’s perhaps no surprise that buildings make up a staggering 70 percent of the city’s total carbon emissions each year.

It’s also one reason why New York state joined a nine-state coalition this week that’s pledging to dramatically ramp up installations of electric heat pumps, which are far more energy efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems and widely seen as a key solution to curbing climate change. 

In a memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday by California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, the Democratic-led states set a goal to essentially phase out the selling of new fossil fuel boilers and furnaces for residential properties over the coming decades. The agreement aims to have 65 percent of new sales of heating and cooling systems in those states consist of heat pumps by 2030, with that percentage reaching 90 percent by 2040.

“Buildings are the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in New York State,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a press release announcing the new coalition. “This new multi-state agreement and the strengthened partnership with participating states will bolster New York State’s ongoing efforts to replace fossil fuel infrastructure and install heat pumps in more homes for the benefit of public health and the environment while setting an example for other states to follow.”

Altogether, the nine states account for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The new pledge, though non-binding, could be especially important for the nation’s efforts to tackle climate change should a Republican, such as Donald Trump, win the presidential race this November. Upon reelection, former President Trump has pledged to dismantle the nation’s only climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement again, drastically ramp up domestic oil and gas drilling and crack down on government scientists.

“A return of Trump would be, in a word, horrific,” Andrew Rosenberg, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official who is now a fellow at the University of New Hampshire, told the Guardian this week. Trump “would roll back progress made over decades to protect public health and safety.”

During Trump’s first term, many environmentalists saw state action as the most—if not only—viable avenue for addressing climate change and its impacts. New York and California, in particular, have helped to influence the adoption of climate and clean energy legislation in more than a dozen other states. As of today, at least 16 states have ratified laws that mandate a reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions, with at least 24 states setting similar reduction goals through executive orders as well as other non-binding means, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Coalitions such as the one formed this week have also become a standard practice in the absence of federal regulation. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional cap and trade program between 11 Northeast states, has helped those states reduce their annual carbon emissions from power plants by 50 percent and raised more than $7 billion since 2005.

Even if Trump loses, states play a vital role in implementing the Inflation Reduction Act’s estimated $370 billion for clean energy and climate efforts—a fact that wasn’t lost on climate advocates this week when the new heat pump coalition was announced.

“State policy is critical to accelerating the adoption of building technologies that are good for the climate and good for business. Initiatives that encourage collaboration across state lines to develop best practices are essential to accelerating this transition,” Alli Gold Roberts, senior director of state policy for the climate advocacy group Ceres, said in a statement. “Ceres and the companies we work with applaud today’s memorandum of understanding for its detailed, collaborative and ambitious approach to cut pollution from the building sector.”

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