After a massive gas explosion destroyed homes in Baltimore this week, the city announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make repairs on the city’s aging natural gas infrastructure. But perhaps making repairs is the wrong plan entirely. Instead, the city could use this as an opportunity to transition away from natural gas entirely.
It’s something that needs to happen anyway, to deal with climate change. To hit a climate target of 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, the entire global economy will need to reach net-zero emissions. That includes changing the way that buildings are heated and how kitchen stoves are powered, not only in new buildings but in every house that already exists. (Gas stoves are also very bad for the air quality in your home.)
Some cities and states are already beginning to move away from natural gas. In 2019, Berkeley, California, became the first city in the US to ban gas in newly constructed buildings. Around 30 other cities in the state have followed suit.
But while it’s a good idea to ban gas infrastructure in new buildings, retrofitting already existing buildings is also important for curbing climate change. That means that gas stoves will need to be replaced by electric or induction stoves, gas water heaters will be replaced by electric water heaters, and furnaces that run on natural gas will likely be replaced by heat pumps, which make use of the constant heat underground to transfer heat inside when it’s cold (in the summer, the process can be reversed to create efficient air cooling).
In Maine, the government is paying to help homeowners switch to heat pumps, with a goal of installing 100,000 by 2025. In New York, the state is spending billions on heat pumps as well. Some international governments already plan to go further. In the Netherlands, where natural gas is even more common than it is in the US, the country plans to be completely gas-free by 2050.
The more comprehensively the shift can happen, the more it can make cities safer. Around a quarter of the gas mains are more than 50 years old. This leaves the door open for leaks—or even worse, explosions like the one we saw this week in Baltimore. In short, it’s time to get rid of natural gas.