Watch our new video on greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of the Coronavirus shutdown!
BostonCAN helped to swell the crowd during the “Say Her Name” march and rally, sponsored by Black Lives Matter Boston, on Saturday, July 4. The event was organized to “center and uplift the lives of ALL Black womxn [with] radical joy and dancing because, as Audre Lorde wrote, ‘it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.’ Womxn hold up half the sky all over the world and have always been essential, yet Black womxn are too often overlooked, erased, and devalued.”
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?
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boston Climate Action Network understands that solidarity strengthens us rather than weakens us. Standing with movements that are not primarily focused on climate change expands our ability to envision and actualize a more equitable, sustainable world. As an organization focused on organizing City of Boston residents to speak out for climate justice, we know that anti-Black racism is one of the barriers we face to achieving our mission of climate justice; we also know that climate change continues to disproportionately affect communities of color.
In this historic moment when the flames of racist violence are being fanned by figures of authority, we join the majority in demanding societal recognition that Black Lives Matter and an end to systemic racism. We invite you to join us in learning from the many Black activists speaking out about the links between police brutality, anti- Black racism, and environmental sustainability. Here are a few to get you started.
Dominique Thomas, 350.org Northeast Regional Organizer: “Black people in this country are being systematically suffocated, whether that’s with police officers using their knees to suffocate us, through the coronavirus attacking our lungs, or whether that’s through the fossil fuel industry…”
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: marine biologist and founder of the non-profit think tank Urban Ocean Lab: “…If we want to successfully address climate change, we need people of color. Not just because pursuing diversity is a good thing to do, and not even because diversity leads to better decision-making and more effective strategies, but because, black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than white people (57 percent vs. 49 percent), and Latinx people are even more concerned (70 percent). To put that in perspective, it means that more than 23 million black Americans already care deeply about the environment and could make a huge contribution to the massive amount of climate work that needs doing….”
Mary Annaïse Heglar, writer in residence at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and co-creator of the Hot Take podcast: “…it’s not just time to talk about climate — it’s time to talk about it as the Black issue it is. It’s time to stop whitewashing it. In other words, it’s time to stop #AllLivesMattering the climate crisis. It’s time to talk about how extreme heat exacerbates police violence and increases deaths from tasers. It’s time to talk about what happens in prisons, which often lack air conditioning and heat, as temperatures skyrocket. It’s time to talk about climate gentrification. It’s time to talk about the use of tear gas — which hurts respiratory systems during a pandemic that is already disproportionately affecting Black people — as environmental racism….” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/climate-crisis-racism-environmenal-justice_n_5ee072b9c5b6b9cbc7699c3d
Boston Climate Action Network is a member of Boston Clean Energy Coalition. We endorse its statement, posted to Facebook on June 12, 2020.
Statement of Solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives
The Boston Clean Energy Coalition (BCEC) stands in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and all those working towards racial justice. BCEC was established in early 2017 to address the growing existential crisis of climate catastrophe, with a particular focus on grassroots organizing.
The destabilization of our global climate has its roots in the same exploitative and extractive foundation of our nation and the heart of our economic system, and to this day is inexorably entwined with the culture of white supremacy. While we have always understood this underlying connection between social and environmental injustice, the current moment requires us to step up our anti-racist efforts. Systemic racism demands systemic solutions that are based on listening, learning, empathy, solidarity, and action. No matter what lane we occupy in building a sustainable future, we can and will find ways to center and support racial justice.
We know that systemic racism is directly tied to an undue burden of environmental pollution and public health risk factors. We have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on folks identifying as black, indigenous, or people of color, and remain concerned about the environmental disparities that have contributed to this outcome. When “I Can’t Breathe” is again the horrible rallying cry against institutional racism, we also know that it is the awful daily truth for those who live in the most polluted areas of our city, in the sacrifice zones. We join the demand for justice for the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and many others. We state loudly and publicly that Black Lives Matter.
Researchers at Harvard University have found a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and death from COVID-19. According to The Boston Globe, these experts compared different neighborhoods in the United States and found that those with higher concentrations of small particles in the air also had higher rates of death from the coronavirus. Statistics were used to show that pollution itself had an effect over and above that of other factors, such as socioeconomic status. However, it is well known that residents of polluted neighborhoods tend to be people of color and to have lower incomes.
Although disparities related to COVID-19 seem especially shocking and unfair, it is not news that fossil fuel is associated with health risks, nor that those risks are borne unequally. Burning carbon-based fuel releases two types of pollutants, particles and greenhouse gases. Breathing particulate pollution had been known to cause many health problems long before COVID-19 was around. With particles, the risk is greatest for the people living closest to the source. On the other hand, greenhouse gases released anywhere affect climate everywhere, but effects on local communities differ with geography and infrastructure. With both types of pollution, it is the people with the fewest resources and the greatest social barriers that live in the most dangerous areas and pay with their health or their lives. For a great example of the connections between infrastructure, climate change, health, income, and race, read NPR’s article on urban heat islands.
The takeaways for climate policy are, again, not new, but critically important:
- Reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels as fast as possible, and
- Do so in a way that shifts more benefit and less risk to historically vulnerable groups.
“When you’re up to your a** in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp.”
This saying really sums things up for climate activists these days! Fighting one global emergency is hard enough, and now another one threatens to distract us from our mission.
How do you remember your purpose in the midst of hard times? Annual events can help. The first event was wildly successful, drawing thousands to live rallies in many major cities and calling widespread attention to the issue. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has failed to interrupt the 50th Earth Day celebration, whose official calendar lists over 1,300 online events worldwide.
For us at Boston Climate Action Network, Earth Day reinvigorates our dedication to our “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign. BCAN decided in 2019 that, of many possible climate mitigation strategies, we would advocate for deep energy retrofits of Boston’s largest, most carbon-polluting buildings. Retrofits are also a priority for the City’s Office of Energy, Environment, and Open Space, which is planning to update current law with an emissions performance standard for large existing buildings. However, government plans can lose steam without support and demand from citizens. We need Bostonians to insist that the standard be set high, that enforcement be strict, and that the City allocate enough resources for implementation.
To that end, we are issuing an Earth Day challenge! We have written a petition to the Mayor and the City Council, and we aim to collect 500 signatures by 100 days after Earth Day, July 31. Please sign the petition yourself, and ask friends to do the same. Yes, let’s still drain the swamp, regardless of the alligators!Green Buildings not Greenhouse Gases Petition
On November 14, BCAN was fortunate enough to host special guests Kat Eshel, Ben Silverman, and David Musselman from Environment, Energy, and Open Space (EEOS), who presented on the work they are doing within Mayor Walsh’s office to combat climate change and its consequences for Boston. They provided us with a comprehensive overview of the City’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2019 update, and specifically of the City’s strategies for accomplishing the goal of reducing Boston’s total carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, and reaching carbon-neutral by 2050. Boston’s primary objectives are to:
- decrease energy demand and increase efficiency,
- replace fossil fuel burning technologies with all-electric alternatives, and
- achieve 100% clean energy use.
The City’s strategy acknowledges that mitigation and adaptation efforts must occur simultaneously in order to effectively address the risks climate change poses to the health and resilience of our city and its constituents. While adaptation strategies, such as preparing our infrastructure for rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other climate-related risks, are no doubt important, the EEOS department wisely noted that without meaningful and timely mitigation efforts, any climate adaptation steps taken will be rendered useless as the earth’s climate continues to change. In essence, making widespread efforts to adapt to an ever-changing climate (without actively combating the problem) would require constant updates using ever-depleting resources.
As you may be aware (we hope!), BCAN is focusing heavily on green buildings and strengthening BERDO (Building Energy and Reporting Disclosure Ordinance). Back in November some of our BCAN members volunteered to dig a bit deeper into the CAP update, and noted three particular concerns in a previous blog post: timeline for amending BERDO, lack of clarity around a plan for addressing buildings under 35,000 square feet, and no mention of enforcement penalties for noncompliance. In anticipation of our meeting with the EEOS team, we sent them these questions beforehand, and EEOS presenters thoughtfully incorporated them into their discussion.
Concern #1: the City’s timeline for amending BERDO seems too slow in light of our climate emergency, with a plan to develop standards in 2020 and propose an official amendment in 2021. While we appreciate the public process that must precede regulations of private buildings, we want the City of move faster on retrofits of municipal buildings. The Mayor deserves major props for announcing that all new municipal buildings being designed now will have to meet net-zero standards. Still, the City’s existing municipal buildings need substantial energy-saving retrofits and the City already has a dedicated program, the Renew Boston Trust, that could fund these projects at an accelerated pace.
EEOS reported that they are in the process of auditing the portfolio of municipal buildings to determine what measures they can take to establish a more aggressive timetable, and weigh the potential costs of retrofits with potential savings and emission reduction.
Concern #2: the update does not outline a plan for addressing buildings under 35,000 square feet.
EEOS replied, Step 8 of the building performance standard strategy is all about identifying solutions for non-BERDO-regulated buildings. EEOS wants to work with experts and community groups and encouraged us to come to them with policy proposals, and identify buildings that might serve as good test cases for a whole-building retrofit!
Concern #3: the update does not address enforcement penalties for noncompliance with BERDO.
EEOS acknowledged the importance of enforcement strategies and penalties for noncompliance. They confirmed that as they develop the policies and regulations, they will also develop “accountability mechanisms” to ensure that building owners are not just incentivized to participate, but in fact face consequences if they do not.
Here at BCAN we feel fortunate for this presentation, and the opportunity for honest conversation and collaboration with EEOS. Knowing the City’s priorities helps organizations like ours to identify action steps that align with their initiatives, and provides increased opportunities for meaningful partnership. This is an encouraging example of healthy, substantive dialogue between a community organization and its political representatives.
We encourage you to read EEOS’ presentation to BCAN and join us in person at our next Action Team meeting to discuss our next steps!
The City of Boston recently published its Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2019 Update, which lays out a five-year decarbonization roadmap aligned with the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. BCAN volunteers have taken a close look at the part of the CAP that relates to reducing carbon emissions from existing buildings, since this sector accounts for more than half of Boston’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the key ideas outlined in the CAP is that of carbon emissions performance standards, mandatory carbon emissions targets by building type that decrease over time. The emissions standards would be established by amending the City’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), which currently applies to buildings of 35,000 or more square feet. The process of developing these standards will begin in 2020, and the City expects to propose an amendment to BERDO in 2021.
Establishing building performance standards is an important step forward toward carbon neutrality. Low-carbon buildings save money and bring better health to occupants. Setting standards would give property owners clear mandates to guide their maintenance schedules and would show that the City is taking climate change seriously.
We applaud the City for recognizing that establishing performance standards is a crucial element of what must get done in the next 5 years if we are to meet our 2050 goal. We value the public process that must precede putting more teeth into BERDO, but given that we are in a climate emergency, we are concerned that the City’s timeline for retrofitting existing municipal buildings seems very slow.
According to the CAP, the City intends to reduce annual emissions from municipal buildings by a mere one percent in 2019, plus an unspecified “additional emissions reductions” in 2020 and beyond. Municipal building upgrades are not dependent upon a public process, and an explicit and ambitious timeline for deep energy retrofits of every City-owned building must be made public in 2020. The goal for carbon neutrality in City-owned buildings should be set much sooner than for private buildings.
We are also concerned that there is no plan to address existing buildings under 35,000 square feet. In the near-term, the threshold for BERDO should be lowered. Also, two promising ideas that would benefit many residents should be pursued: rental energy efficiency requirements and energy scorecards that must be made public when a property is rented or sold. Scorecards would empower buyers and renters and create a market-based incentive for owners and landlords to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Both of these ideas should be researched, and if possible established, within this current 5-year plan.
Lastly, we are concerned that the CAP does not address enforcement penalties for non-compliance with BERDO. At present a number of building owners regulated by BERDO have not even complied with the existing mandate to make public their energy use data. Given Boston’s extreme vulnerability to flooding and heat waves, and the consequences of climate change for those worldwide who have contributed the least to the climate emergency, we must use sticks as well as carrots to push Boston’s building owners to decarbonize as quickly as possible.
Read more about our campaign to strengthen and expand Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) at https://bostoncan.org/green-buildings/.
You can find Boston’s website about BERDO at https://www.boston.gov/departments/environment/building-energy-reporting-and-disclosure-ordinance.
You can read more about Boston’s Climate Action Plan at https://www.boston.gov/departments/environment/boston-climate-action#climate-action-plan.
On September 18, San Jose, CA became the largest US city to ban construction of new gas pipelines. All new buildings will have to be electric starting January of 2020 (in less than 4 months!). With its aggressive move, the City of San Jose is displaying the sense of urgency experts and the public alike are calling for in fighting the climate crisis. The ban is remarkable not only because of the size of San Jose (it’s the 10th largest city in the US, with over 1 million inhabitants), but also because of the very short notice developers received. It is as if the city was telling the construction industry: “Get your act together. The technology is there and you can do this.”
With its ban on new gas pipelines, San Jose cuts through two of the bigger obstacles to addressing the climate crisis adequately: (1) utilities that not only delay the transition to clean energy but plan to expand the use of fossil fuels and (2) parts of the construction industry that continue to do business as usual and fail to recognize their role and responsibility in fighting climate change.
From the standpoint of developers, it may be a bit of a scramble to revise plans at such short notice, although alternative technologies such as electric heat pumps are available. However, from the standpoint of investors or building owners it should be a no-brainer, since US cities with climate goals are also beginning to mandate energy retrofits to existing buildings. Why pay for a gas heating system now if I will be required to replace it soon with electric heat?
From the standpoint of a city, any new gas-heated building makes it harder to meet that city’s carbon reduction goals. But this is not the only problem to consider:
- The generation of natural gas through fracking results in methane emissions which have been vastly underestimated in the past. While methane emissions at a production site are not counted towards a city’s carbon inventory, they nevertheless contribute to heating up the planet.
- Fracking also generates considerable amounts of soil, water, and air pollution in addition to the methane release.
- Gas leaks from aging pipeline infrastructures within cities result in additional methane emissions. A July 2019 study shows that for six big east coast cities, including Boston, methane emissions are twice as high as recent EPA estimates suggested. They contribute to global warming, create health problems, kill trees, and jeopardize safety.
- Some gas companies don’t cooperate when asked to fix their gas leaks (see National Grid vs. City of Boston)
- An aging pipeline infrastructure can pose a massive, immediate safety risk, as seen from the recent incidents in the Merrimack Valley.
Given the current building boom in Boston, the City needs to look into serious measures to stop the expansion of gas infrastructure, and do so quickly. San Jose has set an example of one way to accomplish this. Locally BCAN is part of a group of organizations calling on the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) to revise Article 37, Boston’s Green Building Code, to enact a similar ban on gas hook-ups for new construction. The Boston node of 350-MA is among the leaders of that no-gas-in-new-construction campaign.
Hot on the heals of the youth-led climate strike on September 20th, you can keep your activism alight by attending (or organizing) a local event as part of Climate Preparedness Week.
Climate Preparedness Week is a collaborative effort started by Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW), which is supported by the Better Future Project. CREW is a network of local leaders building grassroots climate resilience through inclusive and hands-on education service and planning.
Throughout next week, community groups, libraries, faith groups, local government agencies and more will be hosting interactive events across Boston and further afield.
From film screenings and book readings, speaker presentations and panel discussions, hands-on workshops to exhibitions, there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to learn, give service, and take action to help better prepare our communities for extreme weather events.
Check out ‘Wicked Hot Boston’ at the Museum of Science in Boston, dive into the ‘Emergency Preparedness Workshop’ at the First Church in Roxbury, or come together to watch the ‘Paris to Pittsburgh’ film screening at the JP branch of the Boston Public Libraries, co-sponsored by BCAN with Mothers Out Front.
Visit the Climate Preparedness Week website for the full line up across Massachusetts and beyond.