The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
In January, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Philadelphia’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The science is clear that it is not only imperative to meet the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but that the city must make a significant portion of this reduction in the coming decade.
The bad news is that even if the city were to install solar panels on top of every available roof in Philadelphia, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the city’s ambitious climate goal.
But the good news is that Philadelphia can make huge headway toward zero emissions by addressing racism, inequality, and unsafe housing.
The built environment is responsible for 75% of Philadelphia’s carbon footprint.
The city is unique in terms of its diverse and old housing stock, as well as a high ownership rate, more than 50%.
But many houses are not up to code. According to the Healthy Rowhouse Project, 235,000 homes in Philadelphia have leaks, 90,000 have cracks in the walls or floors, and 77,000 have inadequate heating.
A Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study found that between 2015 and 2017 nearly 75% of low- or moderate-income homeowners who sought home-repair loans were denied.
These housing hazards are bad for health and deserve fixing on their own merit, but they also hinder efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and contribute to poverty.
Uninsulated homes require more energy, leading to higher utility bills in a city where 40% of households are considered housing cost burdened.
The current framework to expand renewables via solar leans on financial incentives and is typically used by more affluent homeowners. This poses a risk that renewable energy will become a luxury good. Communities that historically have experienced the most harm from fossil fuels and energy production could be priced out of the benefits of solar.
For State Sen. Nikil Saval, a Democrat from Philadelphia, it is important to connect the climate crisis to the housing- affordability crisis and school- toxicity crisis. He has a point.
In 2017, the Philadelphia School District partnered with the Philadelphia Energy Authority to renovate three high schools. Two years later, students had better-ventilated, better-lit, and hazard-free schools – while the School District reduced its energy costs by $375,000. When PEA teamed up with the Art Museum, the city’s single largest energy-consuming building reduced energy costs by 24%.
For a low-income household, this kind of cost savings can be transformative.
There is a lot of money coming from the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, and starting as soon as next year, revenues from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
That money should be invested strategically to expand renewable energy in an equitable way and to ensure that every house in the city is not wasting energy – at a time that the cost of utility bills increases. A good guiding principle, according to Christine Knapp, the director of the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability: efficiency first, renewable second.
Another available funding source could be gained by diverting the fossil fuel subsidies that Pennsylvania generously gives, which totaled $3.8 billion in fiscal year 2019, according to a PennFuture analysis.
To ensure equity, and speed of change, some laws need to change. Pennsylvania currently won’t allow for community solar, meaning that if you don’t live in a single-family unit, own your home, and have funds for the full project, solar is prohibited. A bipartisan group of state representatives, including Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Donna Bullock, circulated a cosponsorship memorandum for a bill to allow community solar projects that nearby residents could buy electricity from. A Penn State study found that community solar could generate 11,000 jobs and $1.8 billion in economic activity.
Rep. Chris Rabb, Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, and Sen. Katie Muth circulated cosponsorship memorandums, in their chambers, for a new standard of 100% renewable energy by 2050. If passed, Pennsylvania will join states such as Virginia and New York that made similar commitments.
Transitioning the economy from its dependence on burning fossil fuels to one that runs by harnessing energy from the sun and wind is an existential challenge – in the most literal sense. Conversations about climate change often center on the sacrifices needed to facilitate this transition. What’s far too often neglected are the sacrifices of the status quo in the form of poor housing, high bills, and bad health.