What Does Serious Policy Looks like On Climate?

May 24, 2018


I inform people that other states or countries are adopting some pretty aggressive renewable and efficiency standards.
My follow up question is: “Your competitors are gearing up to run their economy on fuel that is free. What’s your response?”


California’s recently approved solar roof mandate for all new homes came as a surprise to many people — even though stakeholders have been working on the rule change for roughly two years.

That’s likely because the California Energy Commission (CEC) passed the requirement earlier this month as an update to the state’s 2019 Title 24, Part 6, Building Energy Efficiency Standards. Not quite everyday reading.


“Building codes are a sleeper issue,” joked Kelly Knutsen, director of technology advancement at California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA). “But if you get them right, you can do some pretty cool stuff.”

The latest round of standards, which take effect in 2020, do enable some pretty groundbreaking developments in the advancement of clean energy. Besides the requirement that all new homes under three stories install solar panels — a first for the nation — the codes help to incentivize energy storage and include a host of energy efficiency upgrades that will collectively slash energy use in new homes by more than 50 percent.


A new law recently passed in France mandates that all new buildings that are built in commercial zones must be partially covered in either plants or solar panels.

Green roofs are already very popular in Germany and Australia, as well as Canada’s city of Toronto, where a similar law has been in force since 2009. Planting the rooftops of urbanized areas brings many benefits to public, private, economic and social sectors, as well as to the local and global environments.

Here are the top 5 reasons to chose a green roof.

1. Green roofs reduce stormwater runoff. Green roofs increase water retention and can reduce water run-off by 50–90 %. Stormwater that leaves the roof is therefore delayed and reduced in volumes. Outlets, pipes and drains can thus be reduced in capacity, thereby saving construction costs. Finally, retention and delay of runoff eases stress on stormwater infrastructure and sewers.

2. Green roofs are energy efficient. In summer, the green roof protects the building from direct solar heat, while in winter it minimizes heat loss thanks to its added insulation. Energy conservation translates into fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Green roofs also improve air quality, as plants leave trap dust particles from the air, and evapotranspiration cools ambient temperatures.

3. Green roofs can serve as habitat. Low maintenance green roofs can be designed to serve as refuge for species such as ground-nesting birds. Vegetated rooftop habitats can also serve as stepping stones, to create corridors connecting other patches (roofscape or at grade) across an urban sea to natural habitats beyond the city.

4. Green roofs last longer. Green roofs cover the waterproofing membrane, protecting it from UV rays and extreme daily temperature fluctuations. This protection extends the lifespan of the waterproofing twice as long as conventional roofing, meaning that membranes under green roofs last twice as long as those on traditional roofs.

5. Green roofs provide ‘extra’ space. Green roofs make the most of unused space within the increasing density of our cities. Rooftops can be developed into social and recreational spaces and used for urban agriculture.

Not everyone is a fan of the California mandate:

US News & World Report:

Many renewable energy experts, including economists like me, want governments to do something to address climate change but question the mandate.

University of California, Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein summed up this take in his open letter to the California Energy Commission opposing the rule. University of California, Davis economist James Bushnell also opposes the mandate for similar reasons.

Above all, what we economists call “command-and-control policies” like this mandate – inflexible requirements that apply to everyone – often don’t make sense. For example, going solar is less economical in some cases. Even in sunny California, builders can construct housing in shady areas, and not all homeowners use enough electricity for the investment to pay off before they move away.

The mandate does have some exemptions tied to shade and available roof space, but there could property owners subjected to the requirement to own or lease solar panelswho might consider it unreasonable.

We tend to think that “market-based policies” would work better. By relying on incentives instead of requirements, people get to decide for themselves what to do.

Good examples of these policies include a tax on pollution, like the British Columbia’s carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade market, like the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. Instead of restricting the right to pollute, these approaches make people and businesses pay to pollute, either through taxation or by buying mandatory permits.

The flexibility of market-based policies can make meeting pollution reduction goals cost-effective. When people – or businesses – have to factor the costs of pollution into their decision-making, they have a financial incentive to pollute less and will find ways to do so. By reducing pollution as cheaply as possible, more money is left over to spend on other pressing needs like housing, health care and education.

This advantage is not merely theoretical. By many accounts, market-based policies have successfully worked according to theory, including the U.S. sulfur dioxide trading program and the EU’s carbon trading program.

California itself has a cap-and-trade market. I believe that expanding and improving it would cut carbon emissions more cost-effectively than the solar mandate would.

Many economists also fear that the mandate will worsen California’s housing unaffordability. This crisis has many causes, such as restrictive zoning regulations that curtail construction. But the solar-panel requirement, which could increase the cost of a new home by more than $10,000, probably won’t help, even though supporters of the policy argue that the solar panels will pay for themselves in terms of lower monthly electricity costs.

The Solar Mandate’s Fans
The solar mandate’s defenders, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Sierra Club leader Rachel Golden, make several arguments – two of which I find credible.

The first is what I’d call the “Panglossian” argument, after the character in “Candide,” Voltaire’s 18th-century classic satire. In what Voltaire would call “the best of all possible worlds,” taxing carbon would make perfect sense.

But this is a world riddled with political obstacles that make enacting almost any climate policy next to impossible. If a big American state can enact an imperfect law like this mandate that might do some good, then it should go for it.

The other argument I find reasonable is that by drumming up more demand, the solar mandate will expand the solar panel market – thereby driving solar costs down, perhaps more quickly than a carbon tax would. There’s some evidence supporting the theory that these mandates can spur innovation in renewable electricity technologies.

If the mandate works out, it might address two issues at once: shrinking California’s carbon footprint and bolstering technological progress in the solar industry.

To be sure, the cost of residential solar panels has plummeted in recent years, although generating solar energy through rooftop panels remains less cost-effective than power from utility-scale solar farms.

A Practical Policy
After mulling all the various arguments made by these different camps, I don’t think that whether California’s rooftop solar mandate is the perfect policy for the climate or the state’s homebuyers is the question.

The answer to that question is a resounding no – but that is beside the point because no policy is perfect. The key question is whether this policy – given its imperfections and given the difficulty in passing more cost-effective policies – is a winner overall. That question is harder to answer.

Ultimately, I believe the mandate will yield some environmental benefits, though they could be more cost-effectively achieved through other means.

12 Responses to “What Does Serious Policy Looks like On Climate?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I myself object to the California mandate, and not just because of the tree-shaded houses (like mine in Texas). This mandate raises the cost of housing.

    Consider a motion a few years ago to mandate access ramps for all homes in Austin. It sounds like a good idea for the disabled but it screws over poor people. If the motion had passed, I could have phoned my maintenance contractor, given him general instructions to add an aesthetically pleasing ramp, and written up a check to pay him without putting down my cognac, dahling.

    (FWIW, I’ve already improved handicapped access to my house without a mandate.)

  2. earthscience2018 Says:

    International conferences on Earth Science #Climate change Join us at Zurich, # Switzerland this September 6-7, 2018
    For more information go through the link: https://www.meetingsint.com/conferences/earthscience

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    “…builders can construct housing in shady areas, and not all homeowners use enough electricity for the investment to pay off before they move away.”

    The usual cherry picking coal sludge. Leaving out the resale value and the value to successive owners of the building, not to mention the world.

    The article goes on to say exactly what you’d expect from the source, representing all mental 2 year olds and teenagers by refusing to be told what to do. Market religion nonsense with a little green dressing. It’s too late for that. Anything we can pass will be too weak to matter. They’re always sold as things to ramp up later. Working really well for mileage standards, eh? If we can pass a strong one, we can also pass things that will really work, like the one thing we really need–a massive immediate global US-WWII-level climate mobilization. Under that umbrella the government (which will be democratic and progressive by that time or we’ll never get anything passed) will have broad leeway to institute lots of different programs.

    “Good examples of these policies include a tax on pollution, like… a cap-and-trade market… ”

    Complains about raising the cost of housing but is fine with raising the cost of everything. Brilliant. I think of this as the Hydra Gambit–cut off whichever head sticks out farthest and has the best chance of moving forward. Demand instead some other head, then cut that off as soon as it’s stuck forward and wax nostalgically about how wonderful that old head was before it got cut off. Worked for Waxman-Markey, will work for most things, at least to delay them long enough to be weakened beyond recognition. What complete assholes conservatives are any more.

  4. J4Zonian Says:

    PS Typo ins headline

  5. lracine Says:

    Below is a link to Energy Flow Charts ( All energy consumed (elect, heat, transportation, industry) and production source… ie Natural gas, solar, wind etc.. ) of the USA. The data is put together by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, (it is a creditable site, back by Dept of Energy). The flow charts cover not only the USA but is also broken down by state and year, so the trends become apparent.

    A pic says a thousand words…


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