Fossil Fuel, Health, and Inequality

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:

  1. Reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels as fast as possible, and
  2. Do so in a way that shifts more benefit and less risk to historically vulnerable groups.

Earth Day Challenge: Sign Our “Green Buildings” Petition

“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

EEOS comes to BCAN to discuss the CAP update

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! 

Boston Must Lead By Example — 2019 Climate Action Plan Update

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.

San Jose Bans Gas Pipelines for New Buildings by 2020

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:  

  1. 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. 
  2. Fracking also generates considerable amounts of soil, water, and air pollution in addition to the methane release. 
  3. 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.
  4. Some gas companies don’t cooperate when asked to fix their gas leaks (see National Grid vs. City of Boston
  5. 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.

Climate Preparedness Week (Sept 24-30)

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.

ACTIVISTS, OFFICIALS ASK FOR SWIFT APPROVAL OF CCE

An overflow crowd of climate activists, City officials, and others filled the Boston office of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) on Tuesday, August 20, for a public hearing on the City of Boston’s municipal aggregation plan. The hearing was one step in the DPU’s decision-making process regarding Community Choice Energy (CCE), the name of Boston’s proposed aggregation. In attendance were representatives of BostonCAN, Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), the Barr Foundation, Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), Clean Water Action, Community Labor United (CLU), Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), Massachusetts Climate Action Network (MassCAN), Mothers Out Front, Sierra Club, and 350 Mass.

The testimony covered a wide range of arguments supporting approval of CCE. For example, BostonCAN’s speakers stressed the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, the importance of price stability and protection from unscrupulous energy suppliers, and the contribution of aggregations to state-level as well as citywide goals. BSAC students testified about the transparency and inclusiveness of the City’s CCE planning process. Mothers Out Front volunteer Emily Arnold said of CCE, “This program offers the greatest single reduction of Boston’s greenhouse gases and opportunity for growth of renewable energy use—and all the while Boston residents will not have to change a thing.” As only a parent could, she framed this message between a tale about teaching her five-year-old son to “work smarter, not harder” and a fervent hope that climate change will not rob him of a full lifetime to use his problem-solving skills.

Attendees urged the DPU not only to approve CCE, but to do so quickly. David Sweeney, Chief of Staff for Boston’s Mayor Walsh, reiterated the request in Boston’s plan that CCE be approved by August 31 to allow for a January 1, 2020 start date. In written comments, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office had articulated concerns that could delay CCE’s approval: (1) that the simultaneous shift of so many customers from Eversource to CCE could create “market uncertainty” and affect electric rates for non-CCE customers, and (2) that Boston must educate its large, multilingual public well enough to enable informed decisions about CCE participation.

Addressing the first issue, Sweeney argued that the lack of a decision about CCE has already created market uncertainty, and that the best cure would be a timely implementation.  Responding to the second challenge, Sierra Club’s Michelle Brooks pledged that her organization would help “by informing our roughly 10,000 members and supporters residing in the City of Boston throughout each phase of the implementation process.”

Last to testify, BostonCAN member Mike Prokosch said he expected Eversource to claim that they would need more time to transfer customer data to the City’s supplier. “They should have seen this coming,” said Prokosch. “They’ve had two years.”

BostonCAN awaits the DPU’s decision on CCE. We hope it is both positive and timely.