Are we ready to blame the chimney instead of the tailpipe?
In the next five years or so, the No. 1 source of air pollution along the Wasatch Front is going to switch from vehicles to buildings.
That is good news of a sort. It means that cars, trucks and buses — currently producing more than half the pollution — are getting cleaner.
Buildings? Not so much. And as the population continues to boom, so does the number of houses and businesses. Without some changes, we’ll still be swimming in bad air no matter how clean the cars get.
The timing is tough, especially on the residential front. As housing affordability shrinks, we need to make housing even more expensive to be more efficient. At a time when the middle class is being priced out of both rents and home ownership, we need to add things like thicker walls, cleaner furnaces and solar panels.
You can argue they’ll pay for themselves over the long term, but that doesn’t help over the short term. And when it comes to buildings, the long term is really long. Whereas most cars last a decade, most houses can last a century. That makes it impossible to just wait for old buildings to be replaced. It will take a spectrum of solutions, some of which were highlighted in a Tribune series last week.
And we’re not going to get much help from the federal government this time.
Regulation of vehicle emissions has been completely driven by the federal Clean Air Act. The feds have served us well, constantly demanding cleaner cars over decades. That’s why Utah politicians on both sides have come out against the Trump administration’s plan to slow down the progress.
But the feds don't have much to regulate when it comes to building construction. It's on each state to establish its own standards.
The Utah Legislature, a bastion of real estate and construction interests, has been a reluctant reformer of building codes. The last update was in 2016, and that included language that froze building code standards until 2021, preventing the updates that are happening in other states. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Brad Wilson, a Davis County developer, is now Speaker of the House.
What to do? We can’t just demand the changes in building standards and pass along the costs to consumers, only to see more people squeezed out of decent housing. And we can’t just subsidize the changes with tax money. They’re too expensive. But there is a role for government in both discouraging the worst practices and incentivizing the best ones. That applies to industry as well, which still produces a sizable chunk of the air pollution.
With all the focus on tax restructuring these days, is that opportunity to nudge this along? Should there be more tax breaks for reducing pollution? Are we ready to talk about a carbon tax? Both deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.
Utahns understand the threats of poor air quality, and they’re willing to make trade-offs to avoid asthma attacks and premature deaths. They’ll even seek smaller spaces that produce less pollution if those spaces still deliver a high quality of life.
We’re also blessed with large amounts of sun — including in winter, making the transition to solar energy easier than it is for most of the country.
The good news is that responsibility for cleaning Utah’s air is increasing falling on Utahns. We’re up to the job, but we’re going to need both carrots and sticks.