BERDO 2.0’s Review Board—Does it Deliver Community Oversight to the “Greening” of Boston’s Largest Buildings?

Written by Paula Georges

Boston’s large buildings, including office, commercial and residential buildings, account for over half of the city’s carbon footprint. To reduce pollutants from Boston’s dirtiest buildings and meet Boston emissions reduction goals, the City has drafted an overhaul of the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO). The amended ordinance, now called the Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance, requires building owners to meet emissions standards that become more strict over time.

This ordinance’s implementation will be overseen by a Review Board. This Review Board will have responsibility for the following functions: approve hardship compliance plans and other waiver applications, approve expenditures from the Equitable Emissions Investment Fund, propose regulations to the Air Pollution Control Commission (APCC), and oversee enforcement.

But who will be making these decisions? Who will sit on the Review Board? Review Board members have significant regulatory authority to determine how strictly the rules are enforced and how equitably funds are spent.  Will big building owners be allowed to police themselves? Or will there be true community accountability? Review Board members must have credibility with under-served neighborhoods and residents in carrying out their significant authority. Board members should be drawn from community-based groups who can represent and give voice to the environmental justice populations most affected by climate change and who will benefit the most from building upgrades.

Coming Up: Boston City Council hearing on BERDO 2.0 on Thursday, July 22, 3PM. The hearing offers an opportunity for BCAN and other climate advocacy groups to weigh in on these amendments. 

Watch live at bit.ly/BostonCityCouncilTV

Behind Closed Doors

Written by Paula Georges

In January 2021, a group of researchers at the Institute for Environment and Society at Brown University, led by Professor J. Timmons Roberts, published a report, Who’s Delaying Climate Change in Massachusetts? The report documents how industrial actors successfully lobby against climate legislation at the state level. The report may not surprise climate activists on how corporate interests in Massachusetts  ̶  armed with incredible financial resources  ̶  are able to block climate legislation; nevertheless, these findings are potentially useful to mount an effective offense against these outsized powerful interests.

One key finding is that the opponents of climate action rarely testify publicly about their opposition to climate bills, but rather meet with policy-makers behind closed doors. Of particular importance to the successful passage of strong amendments to the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), now under consideration at the Boston City Council, is that the public hearings and working group meetings may not reveal the opposition from the real estate trade associations such as NAIOP Mass, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board and Mass. Association of Realtors.

As documented in the report, commercial real estate interests resist residential energy efficiency standards and mandating energy audits. Using social justice narratives, real estate interests complain that these kinds of regulations would place an undue burden on housing affordability. Yet, they never talk about how energy bills could be lowered by retrofitting housing with efficiency measures. One possible tactic to neutralize the power of trade associations is to ask those individual members of the association who are friendly to reforms to testify in favor of BERDO amendments.

Another important finding is that pro-climate actors do not always support each other’s bills. For example, solar activists do not necessarily lobby in favor of raising efficiency standards. Expanding the network of green actors that support a wide range of climate bills could increase our movement’s lobbying power. In this light we invite all organizations and activists involved in environmental, energy, and social justice campaigns in the City of Boston to contact your City Councilors in support of passage of a strong amendment to BERDO.

Regional Proposals to Adapt to the Consequences of Climate Change

Written by Paula Georges

Three recent opinion pieces published on the Boston Globe’s opinion page on Monday, May 31, 2021, suggest three ways to address the impact of climate change on Boston and the other communities along Massachusetts’ vulnerable coastline and its regional economy. These proposals are worth reviewing, but the first line of defense is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The first one, entitled “Managing rising seas may require a managed retreat,” by Richard W. Murray and Daniel P. Schrag, proposes that communities in harm’s way must adapt to the “new, future coast, without promises of a perfect safety net that we cannot afford.” The authors maintain that we cannot build our way out of the threat of rising seas with costly sea walls that are only short-term solutions at best. Difficult decisions must be made by all levels of government to end low-cost flood insurance and require relocation away from the coast.

The second piece entitled, “Developing a climate resilient Boston waterfront,” by Jocelyn Forbush, suggests that building a greener waterfront is one way to protect vulnerable at-risk neighborhoods, such as East Boston. This adaptation method calls for a “raised, grassy park with natural plantings and salt marsh” that can absorb flood waters and bounce back after disruption. This approach calls for open, green space that offers respite from city streets to the public and provides opportunity for “inclusive programming.”

The third piece entitled, “Planning a ‘layered defense’ for Boston Harbor,” by Bill Golden, suggests that all the 15 cities and towns linked to Boston Harbor should develop a regional sea gate system and integrate it with locally based coastal resiliency plans. The author points out that New Bedford, with its regional, reliable sea gate system, has protected the city from the devastation of storm surge for over 50 years.  Given that the Boston Metropolitan area acts as New England’s economic engine, the author maintains these actions must be taken to preserve our regional economy.

A robust discussion must be had on what to do about the increasing flood risk to the low-lying neighborhoods of South Boston, East Boston and other at-risk neighborhoods. Special attention must be paid to the concerns of the low- and moderate-income households living in these at-risk neighborhoods. While these discussions are critical, the reduction of climate-warming emissions remains the priority, because burning fossil fuels is the root cause of climate change.

You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure!

Written by Loie Hayes

This old adage – you can’t manage what you don’t measure – goes to the heart of why BCAN fought for the first version of Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) back in 2013. Without accurate data about how much energy our city’s biggest buildings are using, there’s no way for their owners to achieve necessary reductions, nor to be held accountable for doing so.

BERDO now requires owners to report their buildings’ energy use annually. BERDO was a big win for the climate movement in Boston all those years ago, but it is not yet known for its accurate data. We’ve spent many hours collectively analyzing the BERDO data, and we’ve found that many building owners are reporting improbably low – or high – energy usage.

We applaud Boston’s Environment Department for proposing significant revisions to BERDO (aka “BERDO 2.0”), but we do have to call into question a couple of parts of the proposal. The first one, which this blog post addresses, is the manner in which building owners will have to verify the accuracy of their reported energy use.

Under the current version of BERDO, building owners must report their energy use data to the City annually, but they don’t have to have an independent professional certify that their data are accurate. The Environment Department now recommends that, every five years, an owner be required to obtain certification for his or her past five years of data. (This process is referred to as “third party verification” in BERDO 2.0.)

BCAN has pointed out that, when owners’ data are inaccurate, a five-year delay in certification could result in their learning for the first time after 2025 that they are out of compliance with the 2025 emissions standard—too late to avoid a violation and too late to prevent potentially tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

BCAN proposes that owners be required to obtain certification for their first annual report after the amended BERDO takes effect, with subsequent certifications due every five years after that. It’s only common sense to measure well so we can manage well.

Flooding -The High Cost of Climate Change

Written by Paula Georges

The Boston Globe reports that as sea levels rise and storms become more powerful, the risk of flooding in the City is increasing, bringing with it potentially devastating financial impacts.  Citing a recent study from the First Street Foundation, the news article states that in Boston “by mid-century more than 3,000 properties a year would face substantial risk of damage from flooding, those losses are likely to exceed $62 million a year in 30 years, 75% more than now.” As a coastal city, Boston’s low-lying neighborhoods face serious problems from damage due to seepage, since so much of our housing stock and structures are not built to resist flooding. Right now, Boston’s homeowners pay an average of $700 or less a year for flood insurance; the report predicts that in 30 years the cost may be as high as $9000 annually.

Environmentalists are calling for measures such as restoring river flood plains and making sure that there are undeveloped areas left to absorb stormwater. Coastal management experts call for retreating from high flood zones and not rebuilding in areas that are prone to flooding. Boston, like other high density urban areas, faces a unique set of challenges, since its existing building stock can’t easily be moved to less flood prone areas. For example, the Seaport district is the newest and perhaps the most vulnerable area for flooding damage in Boston. It is clear now that permitting its development was misguided and unsustainable.

The Mayor and City Council will soon be reviewing recommendations to update the Building Energy and Reporting Ordinance (BERDO) with new standards for owners of large buildings to curb greenhouse emissions. While that effort will mitigate climate change impacts, we must not lose sight of the importance of the need to address — through other policy measures — the climate change impacts we can no longer prevent. The City already has “guidelines” to reduce the impacts of flooding. It would be wise also to consider requiring retrofits that protect against damage from flooding in high-risk areas.

CCE Automatic Enrollment: Done for Us, Not to Us

As the City of Boston rolls out Community Choice Electricity (CCE), we hear or read occasional criticism of the program’s “opt-out” nature. To some, switching customers into the program unless they object feels like overreach, and non-transparent. We firmly disagree that the City has been either deceptive or coercive.

Communication about CCE has been open. The City sent a letter to every eligible customer, explaining the program, the comparative rates, and the available choices, including opting out. If the letter’s recipients, like its critics, found it confusing, it included clear instructions about where to get more information. Additionally, CCE has been well-advertised across several platforms, with many opportunities for engagement around questions and concerns. These have included press releases, posters, webinars on multiple dates with translation into multiple languages, and virtual “office hours” with City officials.

To those who find automatic enrollment in CCE heavy-handed, we offer a reminder: before CCE, people moving to Boston were not left to shop on their own for an energy provider, either. Instead, incoming residents were automatically assigned to Eversource, where they stayed unless they took the initiative to contract with a different electricity supplier. If it was previously acceptable for Eversource to be the default supplier, why is it a concern now to establish a different default that offers greener energy? The rollout only moves customers from one default to another: anyone who has already chosen a supplier other than Eversource will not be moved. And customers who are switched do not lose any of their choices: although January 11 was the deadline to prevent being enrolled in CCE, people can still switch back to Eversource at any time—or, alternatively, change to a more or less expensive CCE plan.

CCE skeptics also note that CCE’s rates are only guaranteed to be lower than Eversource’s through June, and that CCE could possibly end up costing more over all. However, every supplier changes its rates periodically, and there is no guarantee that Eversource will be the cheapest in the long run, either. What we do know is that the City is committed to keeping rates favorable and stable over time, being a principle priority of the program as disclosed on their website.

We get it: no one likes to feel pushed around. But that is not what’s happening here. Opt-out programs are designed to sign up a critical mass of participants in a timely way, not by entrapping the unwilling, but by making the process effortless for the rest.    

CCE is a critical element of Boston’s Climate Action Plan, which aims for our city to be carbon neutral by 2050. We think that implementing CCE efficiently is a form of facilitation, not pressure. Claiming that city government either overstepped its bounds or was secretive in the instance of the CCE rollout is not factual. When the City Council hearing on CCE was held in 2017, over 300 Bostonians showed up to voice their support. As a city, we have demanded swift and meaningful climate action; let us not now criticize our officials for fulfilling their promise.

King Tides and Rising Seas

BCAN continues to document the increasing frequency of flooding in Boston due to sea level rise. This is especially noticeable at “king tide” events, the next of which is upcoming on Sunday November 15th. And this is only just the beginning. These coastline maps demonstrate the city’s vulnerability over the next several decades. Move the arrows to observe how the city is impacted.

The map on the left-most side of the slide projects the high tides around the coastline of Boston in the 2030s, with 9 inches of sea level rise due to increasing global temperatures. The lighter blue represents flooding of sea water into city neighborhoods. The map on the right-most side of the slide depicts high tides in the 2070s, after a projected 36 inches of sea level rise, and additionally a middle-of-the-road scenario for flooding in our streets from stormwater, shown in aqua green. The purple, red, and bright green colors show the places in the city where our most vulnerable populations reside–low income residents, people of color, and the elderly.

These images give you just a peek into what has become our reality here in Boston. King tide events—AKA perigean spring tides—are not going away any time soon. We will see more and more of these flooding events in our city, and as the maps show, they will get worse and worse, especially for our most vulnerable and under-resourced communities. We must take bold and aggressive climate action now to protect our coastal neighborhoods and forestall the impact of climate change.

The City of Boston has a great tool for finding the projected flooding for any address in the City. To learn more about anticipated flooding in your neighborhood and at the places you like to visit, go to https://www.boston.gov/departments/environment/climate-ready-boston-map-explorer.