“Green Buildings” FAQ

On Earth Day 2020, we launched a petition drive as part of our “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign. The petition is aimed at accelerating the pace of energy retrofits of large, existing buildings citywide. Because the current applicable city law, BERDO, is not strong enough to ensure that these retrofits happen, the petition asks the City to amend BERDO with strict building emissions standards and to ensure that they are implemented and enforced.   

Since the petition launch, we have been receiving some great questions from our members and the general public. Read on: your question may be answered here. 

What is the big idea behind your “Green Buildings” campaign?

The ultimate purpose is to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change. The latest update to Boston’s Climate Action Plan includes steps to reduce carbon emissions in three main sectors: buildings, transportation, and energy supply. 

Why did BCAN decide to focus on buildings

Over 70% of citywide greenhouse gases come from buildings. While it is important to reduce carbon pollution from all sources, BCAN wanted to concentrate on the sector with the most emissions.

Why existing buildings?

An estimated 85% of the buildings that will exist in Boston in 2050 are already built today. (That said, it is also important to keep new buildings from adding to the emissions problem. The Boston Clean Energy Coalition, of which BCAN is a member, is leading a separate campaign to ensure the adoption of net zero standards for new buildings.)

Why large ones?

Boston’s largest buildings—less than 3% of the total number–account for about half of total citywide emissions. 

Which buildings are we talking about?

Specifically,

  • nonresidential buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger,
  • residential buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger, or have 35 or more units, and
  • any parcel with multiple buildings that sum to 100,000 square feet or 100 units.

This group of 2,200 buildings encompasses many types: hospitals, laboratories, universities, office buildings, hotels, multi-family housing, and more. Some are owned by the City, but many are privately owned. 

What is BERDO?

BERDO, the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, is a City law passed in 2013. It requires owners of large buildings (as defined above) to report annual energy and water usage to the City. It also requires the City to make the data public. Every five years, owners are required to do something additional about their energy usage: either take an energy action or get an energy assessment.  

What happens if building owners don’t comply?

The penalties specified under BERDO are light. The Air Pollution Control Commission, which is part of the City’s Environment Department, is authorized to fine non-compliant owners or tenants. However, the fines are capped at $3,000 per building annually, and applying them is cumbersome because it involves taking non-compliers to court. In actuality, the City has not been enforcing BERDO. BCAN believes the City needs to allocate more staff resources to the implementation of this law.  

Why do you say that existing requirements are not strong enough?

Every five years, owners of large buildings are required either to take an energy action or get an energy assessment.

To fulfill the “action” option, owners may prove their buildings are already energy-efficient by earning certain certifications, or demonstrate that they have achieved a 15% reduction in energy use. However, the worsening pace of the climate crisis necessitates a higher rate of reduction.

The “assessment” option, while a valuable start, does not alone seem like sufficient progress for a five-year period. 

What kind of changes would building owners need to make in order to make a difference?

There are many ways to reduce a building’s carbon footprint: insulation and air-sealing; more efficient heating, cooling, and lighting; producing or purchasing “green” electricity; occupant behavior changes; and more. What will work best is different for different buildings. 

Massachusetts’ cities and towns cannot specify how buildings must be built. They must adopt one of two building codes passed by the state. This is why Boston will update BERDO with a carbon emissions standard, setting limits that will probably vary by building size and type. It will be up to owners to decide how to meet the standard. That said, the City will offer guidance to owners and builders about ways to cut carbon emissions.     

How will this measure move forward at City Hall?

The Environment Department is leading a technical analysis that will use input from experts and citizens to decide on a new carbon emissions standard. By 2021, the new standard will be proposed to the City Council, who will be asked to pass it as an amendment to BERDO, replacing the old action/assessment requirement.   

How does my signing the petition help?

In its latest Climate Action Plan, the City has committed to a new carbon emissions standard for existing buildings. However, government plans can lose steam without support and demand from citizens. By signing the petition, you provide evidence that Bostonians want owners to fix their large buildings in order to protect our climate. 

Have another question that isn’t answered here? We’d love to hear from you. Email Andy, our coordinator, at andy@bostoncan.org.

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