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Most People in BC Are Ready to Get New Buildings off Gas: Poll

A recent survey shows strong support for government reining in methane use and making heat pumps more affordable.

Seth Klein, Melissa Lem, Liz McDowell and Ashley Zarbatany 29 Mar 2024The Tyee

Seth Klein is team lead with the Climate Emergency Unit. Melissa Lem is a family doctor and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Liz McDowell is senior campaigns director with Stand.earth. Ashley Zarbatany is fossil gas campaigner for Dogwood BC.

As the province prepares for what most expect will be a very challenging summer of fires and drought, much of the public has come to understand that the climate emergency is upon us. Luckily, the solutions are at hand too. A key piece of climate emergency action is getting fossil gas — more commonly and misleadingly known as “natural” gas — out of buildings. But we need to pick up the pace. And done right, electrifying our homes can also improve affordability.

The gas we burn in our homes and buildings (for heating, hot water and cooking) is responsible for about 12 per cent of British Columbia’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it the third-largest source of provincial carbon pollution after emissions from transportation and from the fossil fuel industry itself.

Within most cities, the gas we burn in our homes and buildings constitutes more than half of local GHG emissions. Not only does burning gas in our homes exacerbate climate breakdown, but it’s also bad for our health, as the indoor air pollution increases risks of childhood asthma and other illnesses.

The good news: British Columbians are ready to see our government take more decisive action to speed up progress on this file.

Last November, a coalition of climate groups commissioned a provincewide poll of 1,000 British Columbians from Abacus Data on the subject of gas in buildings. The results are very heartening.

With respect to new homes and buildings, when asked “Do you support or oppose the following policy in B.C: 'By the end of next year, all new homes and buildings should be required to heat and cook using electricity, and not with gas or other fossil fuels,'” 45 per cent of respondents expressed support, while a further 23 per cent replied they could accept such a policy. Only 23 per cent were opposed.

851px version of AbacusGasSurveyInforgraphic1.png
All infographics via Abascus Data.

Notably, while 14 municipalities across B.C. have adopted policies that will meet this goal in the next year (such as Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo and Burnaby), the province itself has only committed to enact such a policy for new buildings by 2030, a date that is at least two political mandates into the future and certainly does not signal urgency.

When it comes to people’s current homes, people are keen to convert from gas to electric heat pumps. If given a choice, by a margin of more than two to one, respondents said they would prefer a heat pump over natural gas (47 per cent versus 22 per cent), provided the costs were equal (the balance were either unsure or had no preference).

Among the survey’s most interesting findings is that a majority of the B.C. public wants to see the government adopt a more aggressive approach to transitioning our homes from gas to electricity. And we want our government to take a firmer regulatory hand over FortisBC, the private monopoly licensed to provide gas to most homes and buildings in the province — a company which, as reported by The Tyee and others, is pulling out all the stops to grow its market as the top supplier of methane to homes and businesses in B.C.

851px version of AbacusGasSurveyInforgraphic2.png

Fifty-seven per cent of B.C. residents agree that “FortisBC should be required to include information with each monthly bill about the benefits of electrification and heat pumps, and customer information about how to transition off gas,” something the B.C. government, with oversight of this regulated monopoly, is well within its power to demand. Conversely, only 23 per cent of respondents were opposed to this idea.

Similarly, 56 per cent of survey respondents agree that the government should require Fortis to shift from gas towards renewable energy (with only 25 per cent opposed). And 55 per cent agree that the B.C. government should prohibit the company from using customer payments for lobbying and advertising to expand gas use (with only 22 per cent opposed).

Given that those who still rely on gas to heat their homes have no choice but to pay monthly bills to Fortis, it is particularly egregious that Fortis uses this very income for political lobbying and misleading advertising to promote the continued and expanded use of this fossil fuel. As the regulator, the B.C. government and/or the BC Utilities Commission could prohibit this.

After all, why should Fortis ratepayers have to pick up the tab for such activities, especially when Fortis’s only competitor is BC Hydro, the very company we urgently want people to switch to?

If there was a disheartening finding in the Abacus survey, it is that all the above results came in the context of disturbingly poor knowledge about the role of “natural” gas and other fossil fuels in precipitating the climate crisis.

The final survey questions sought to determine the B.C. public’s level of climate literacy. Stunningly, when asked if the following statement was true or false: “The largest cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, such as the gas we use to heat our homes and buildings, and the gas and diesel we use in our cars and vehicles,” only 49 per cent of respondents correctly knew this statement to be true; meaning less than half the public understands this vital and central fact about the climate crisis.

Even fewer (29 per cent) correctly knew that the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in most cities is the burning of methane gas in homes and buildings. In other words, the strong support we found for getting our homes and buildings off gas came even in the absence of widespread understanding of the problem.

851px version of AbacusGasSurveyInforgraphic3.png

But these results also point to the potential power and benefits of a well-executed public education campaign. If the provincial government were to undertake a solidly resourced advertising campaign to provide basic information about the causes of climate change and the major sources of our GHG emissions, the support we found for quickly transitioning our homes and buildings from gas to electricity would likely be much stronger.

More action needed

In a welcome move, the 2024 BC Budget, introduced last month, includes $40 million for heat pump rebates for low- and modest-income households. At long last, as of 2024, Fortis is no longer allowed to offer rebates for high-efficiency gas appliances (although it took the province over two years to implement this promise), a practice that contradicted provincial efforts to move homes off gas.

BC Hydro has been undertaking some great advertising on the benefits of heat pumps. And even Premier David Eby has gotten in on the act, sporting an “I Heart Heat Pumps” T-shirt at a premiers’ meeting last year. But much more is needed.

The discouraging truth is that FortisBC is lapping the province in undermining our efforts to get buildings off gas. In 2022, the last year for which we have statistics, Fortis increased its customer base by over 10,000 net new customers. In contrast, only 5,050 households claimed the B.C. government’s heat pump rebate that year (meaning, that’s how many existing buildings switched from gas to electric).

With trends such as these, the province cannot hit its target to reduce emissions by 59 to 64 per cent in buildings and communities by 2030 — the math just doesn’t work. Simply put, we are allowing this regulated private monopoly to make a mockery of our climate plans.

It’s for reasons such as these that the BC Climate Emergency Campaign, whose open letter to the B.C. government has now been signed by over 570 organizations, has called for all new buildings to be prohibited from hooking up to gas lines within a year, and for the government to “create a Crown corporation to mobilize the workforce to retrofit all existing buildings and eliminate fossil fuel heating by 2035.”

And why the government’s own advisory body, the BC Climate Solutions Council, in their most recent annual report, recommended that “New natural gas connections for space and water heating should be disallowed.”

Meanwhile, the opposition BC United and BC Conservative parties are seeking to turn back the clock on B.C.’s climate policies. BC United is endeavouring to make gas in buildings into a political wedge issue, claiming a Falcon-led government would cancel the “NDP scheme” to “impose thousands of dollars of new costs on British Columbians as they ban natural gas for home heating by 2030.”

In truth, the NDP government has no such plan; the NDP has merely committed that new buildings will be carbon-neutral by 2030 and is considering a requirement that gas appliances be swapped out for non-emitting ones at the time of replacement after that date. But it could and should be much more aggressive in its efforts to get gas out of buildings, and can do so in a manner that directly addresses the affordability challenges faced by many.

For example, rather than merely offering heat pump rebates that are quickly eaten up by private contractor price hikes, the province could establish a new Crown enterprise that mass produces and installs heat pumps, gaining economies of scale and eliminating profit margins, thereby driving down heat pump costs. The B.C. government could follow the lead of Prince Edward Island, where, under a Conservative provincial government no less, if a household’s income is under $100,000, they just give you a free heat pump!

As the polling makes clear, the public is ready to support bolder action to get our homes off gas. They want the government to prohibit Fortis from blocking progress on climate action, and if and when the price of heat pumps can be further brought down, they are keen to make the leap to fully electrify our homes.  [Tyee]

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