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Marco Rubio vs. the Unsung Hero of Climate Policy

It’s time to care about building codes.

Marco Rubio.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

I apologize in advance for what I’m about to say, but if you care about the transition to clean energy, it’s high time to pay attention to building energy codes.

The Senate will soon debate an amendment to a must-pass federal budget bill submitted by Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, that would allow the developers of hundreds of thousands of new homes to eschew modern building standards and instead follow an energy code over a decade old.

I get it. Words like “standards” and “codes” might not excite you the way a new climate policy or techno fix might. But they should, because building energy codes are climate policy and techno fixes wrapped into one.

Building lifespans often exceed 50 years. Requiring new buildings to adopt the most effective energy-saving designs would keep us from digging ourselves into a deeper emissions hole with long-lived, energy-intensive infrastructure. Anything built to weak standards today would make it harder to generate enough clean energy to get the country off fossil fuels, and saddle residents with higher utility bills far into the future. Plus, it’s much more expensive to make a building more efficient later than it is to integrate energy-saving measures from the start.

“We all win with new energy standards,” said Jonathan Horowitz, director of policy for the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing in rural America, during a press call on Monday.

The world of building codes is quite confusing — another reason they tend to go overlooked. But here’s what’s happening.

In 2021, a nonprofit aptly named the International Code Council adopted a new “model” building energy and conservation code. The group was formed in the 1990s to consolidate disparate regional efforts to develop building codes around the United States. Now, many states and local governments simply pay a fee to adopt the ICC’s model code, which is updated every three years, rather than spending time and resources writing and amending their own. (Governments in several other countries have also adopted the ICC’s codes, hence the name.)

The ICC’s energy and conservation code incorporates some of the most up-to-date information on how to ensure that a building’s design — including its walls, floors, ceilings, lighting, windows, doors, and ducts — minimize the building’s energy use.

There are no nationwide minimum building energy standards in the United States. The closest thing we have is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rules for federally-backed mortgages, which require newly-built homes to adhere to certain standards in order for buyers to qualify for loans. But the agency is still using the ICC’s 2009 energy code.

The rules don’t let all new construction off the hook. For example, many states and local governments require builders to adhere to more recent iterations of the ICC model code. But a number of states have yet to adopt the latest version — and others have fallen very behind. Arkansas and Kentucky, for example, also use the ICC energy code from 2009. Some states, like Arizona and Kansas, don’t have any state-level building code, leaving it entirely up to municipalities whether or not to instate one.

Since developers have an incentive to make sure their customers have access to federal loans, updating the HUD code could have a big impact.

Earlier this year, HUD proposed adopting the ICC’s new 2021 code. The agency estimated that the change would affect some 168,000 housing units per year, and reduce carbon emissions by 2.2 million metric tons compared to the existing rules. Though it would slightly increase the cost of development, it would yield net average savings to consumers of about $500 per year for single family homes. Buyers of new apartment units could save $6,000 over the course of their mortgage.

But Rubio’s amendment would strip the agency’s funding to implement the higher efficiency standards. “Housing affordability is at a 40 year low,” a Rubio spokesperson told me by email. “The Biden administration’s new rules will cost Americans tens of thousands of dollars, especially at today’s interest rates. No one should be surprised Senator Rubio is fighting for lower housing costs.”

The Huffington Post reported last week that as representative of the second most valuable real estate market in the country, Rubio has received more donations from the homebuilding industry’s political action committees than any other senator over the past two election cycles. The National Association of Home Builders also wrote the senator a letter in September stating that “now is not the time to create or support additional regulations that add more uncertainty, delays, or costs to the home building process.”

The amendment will be considered by the Senate in the coming weeks as the temporary budget deal Congress passed to avert a government shutdown winds down and the body moves to finalize a 2024 budget. The bill that the amendment has been tacked onto currently has bipartisan support, but that’s likely to change now, meaning it could contribute to the risk of another government shutdown.

Get ready for more energy code fun ahead.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article included Louisiana in a list of states that use an older building energy code. It switched to a newer version earlier this year. The article has been corrected. We regret the error.


Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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