New NYC Green Building Laws Offer Inspiration and Lessons for Boston

In April 2019, New York City passed the $14B Climate Mobilization Act. The new laws will reduce the city’s carbon emissions nearly 30% by 2030 and create thousands of green jobs. The most ambitious aspect of the new legislation regulates emissions from the city’s large buildings.

Both the structure of the new laws and their path from campaign to reality offer numerous lessons for Boston. As threatened coastal cities where building emissions comprise the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, New York and Boston share many similarities. Politicians in the two liberal cities are also willing to act on climate issues (with sufficient activist pressure, of course). Examining New York’s success story provides insights for Boston activists seeking to frame a successful campaign and bring green building laws to Boston.

Ambitious Targets and Fines for Large Buildings

New York and Boston’s largest buildings overwhelmingly emit the most greenhouse gasses. In Boston, for example, less than 3% of the city’s buildings produce over half of the city’s building emissions. New York’s new emissions reduction requirements apply only to buildings over 25,000 square feet and some building types, such as affordable housing developments, are exempt from the new law. Emissions from qualifying buildings must be reduced 40% from 2005 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Buildings that fail to meet these targets face significant fines ($1M or more per year for the largest buildings). Owners can reduce their buildings’ emissions with investments in energy efficiency upgrades and/or by purchasing offsets. The new requirements are estimated to create thousands of jobs – approximately 3,600 construction jobs and another 4,400 jobs in maintenance and operations.

Lessons for Boston Activists

Passing New York City’s new laws required years of advocacy, negotiation, and deliberation by the city’s activists, industry experts, politicians, and policy-makers. The laws’ success also hinged on obtaining the support and advocacy of diverse constituents.

Assemble and Train a Diverse Coalition: Following the 2014 People’s Climate March, environmental justice activists, labor groups, and community organizations formed a new coalition: Climate Works for All. The coalition published a report demanding investments in resiliency, emissions reductions, and green jobs for New York City. The group’s first priority was pressuring lawmakers to design and implement new green building laws. In addition to coordinating public actions and protests, the coalition trained New York City residents to meet individually with City Councilors and other decision-makers to ask them to support the proposed legislation.

Acquire Expertise: At the same time, the Urban Green Council independently assembled representatives from over 40 organizations, including real estate, energy efficiency, and labor representatives, to craft a detailed blueprint for reducing carbon emissions from New York City buildings. The resulting “Blueprint for Efficiency” informed the policy creation for the new laws.

Identify Champions: New York City Councilor Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, initiated the bill with support from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. New York City activists, members of the Urban Green Council’s 80×50 Buildings Partnership, and others worked closely with Councilor Constantinides’s office to construct the bill.

Make the Enemy Tangible and the Consequences Real: Carbon is a climate change villain – but as an invisible gas, it makes a difficult campaign opponent. New York activists, with the privilege of numerous Trump and Kushner properties in their hometown, could easily point to “dirty building” enemies. Many New Yorkers, still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, also offered personal climate change stories to highlight the consequences of inaction. The legislation’s high job-creation numbers also appealed to many New York City residents.

Leverage Existing Resources: Boston has an existing system for tracking emissions from large buildings – the Building Energy and Reporting Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO). BERDO data is public and available through the City of Boston’s website. In New York, a similar mandated reporting system for buildings allowed activists to highlight the city’s major emitters and will soon provide the new Office of Building Energy and Emission Performance with the data to identify and fine noncompliant buildings. In Boston, a key challenge will be passing legislation to give “teeth” to BERDO in the form of fines or other penalties for high-emissions buildings.

Boston has the opportunity to become a climate leader like New York by introducing its own innovative new laws reducing emissions from large buildings. In the coming months, BCAN will continue to craft our new “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign. We’re seeking climate champions and advocates – please join us!

 

Further Reading

Want more? The following links offer additional detail on New York City’s new laws:

U.S. News and World Report: How NYC Passed Sweeping Climate Bills

City of New York Press Release: NYC’s Green New Deal

NPR: To Fight Climate Change, New York City Will Push Skyscrapers to Slash Emissions

Urban Green Council: NYC Building Emissions Law Summary

Tough Nut to Crack: Reducing Emissions from Boston’s Existing Buildings

After a thorough process of research and deliberation, BostonCAN is excited to announce the focus of our next campaign: winning policy change to accelerate the conversion of Boston’s existing 86,000 buildings to clean energy for heat, cooling, lights, and all their energy needs.

Powering our homes and businesses with fossil fuels accounts for about 70% of our collective greenhouse gas emissions. The Carbon Free Boston report calls for “deep energy retrofits” within 30 years of all existing buildings in the city: installing deeper insulation in walls and roofs with heating and cooling supplied by highly efficient electrical heat pumps. As our grid becomes steadily greener, these heat pump systems will be responsible for fewer and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Our top near-term goal is to strengthen the energy efficiency of  Boston’s largest buildings. Less than 3% of Boston’s buildings account for more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. These largest buildings are already regulated by Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), which covers all buildings of 35,000 square feet and larger. Adding stronger enforcement mechanisms to BERDO will lead property owners to transition more quickly to cleaner energy. More retrofits will also lead to more jobs for Boston residents, as well as cleaner air, soil and water as we reduce our need to transport and combust fossil fuels.

Retrofitting existing buildings is one of the four top priorities that Boston has chosen for the update of its Climate Action Plan. Carbon Free Boston emphasized the importance of reducing carbon use in existing buildings, especially since “85 percent of projected building square footage in Boston in 2050 exists today.”

The goal is challenging. Many Boston buildings face barriers to even basic levels of insulation, let alone the deep energy retrofits they will need. Judy Kolligian, a BostonCAN member and landlord, has already upgraded heating systems for her own and her tenants’ apartments. “I’ve been improving my building as quickly as I learn how to, but my home has asbestos siding and my tenants’ has asphalt siding. I need the City and Mass Save to figure out more cost-effective ways to insulate buildings like these.”

BsotonCAN invites you to join our “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign, working with allies and city leaders to find urgent, equitable, and affordable solutions for retrofitting all buildings, from triple-deckers like Judy’s to the biggest buildings in the city.

Castle_Square_2

Pictured above is the deep energy retrofit in process in 2012, at Castle Square Apartments in Boston.

Learning from Cambridge’s Net Zero plan

This Tuesday’s release of the Carbon Free Boston (CFB) report begins a political process for us to make hard choices to accomplish the necessary transition away from the fossil fuels devastating our global climate. The report will outline options that will be debated by stakeholders, incorporated into the City’s 2019 Climate Action Plan, and eventually codified in the ordinances and other policy instruments needed to implement its goals.

To give some context for the CFB report, this blog summarizes the City of Cambridge’s 2015 Getting to Net Zero report. Cambridge’s Net Zero plan exclusively targets energy use in  buildings ‒‒ both the amount of energy used and its source. (Emissions from transportation are addressed in other City of Cambridge documents.)

Cambridge’s plan makes some basic distinctions to guide its energy policy.  Energy reduction strategies for new construction are distinguished from those for existing buildings. Likewise, increasing renewable energy generation within city limits is distinguished from using renewable sources outside the city. In addition, it proposes a local offset mechanism for buildings that do not achieve net zero emissions through efficiency, on-site renewable sources, and a greener grid.

Energy efficiency in new construction is the easiest and least expensive route to net zero.  To take advantage of this streamlined approach, Cambridge set targets ranging from 2020 for municipal buildings to 2030 for labs, such as those in Cambridge’s well-known biotech industry.

cambridge net zero
Timeline for net zero new construction by sector, from Getting to Net Zero, City of Cambridge.

Reducing energy use in existing buildings is more complex and Cambridge’s plan lacks a comprehensive approach. The patchwork of policies proposed include retrofit pilot projects, stronger requirements for large building owners to report energy data and plans for improvements, and eventually a mandate to make energy efficiency upgrades at time of sale.

In tandem with buildings being made increasingly energy efficient, Cambridge expects to increase the generation of renewable or low-carbon electricity, heating, and cooling within the City’s boundaries. The primary sources discussed in Getting to Net Zero include solar, harvesting waste heat from large industrial and commercial buildings, and expanding district energy.  Cambridge will also lobby state government for raising the Renewable Portfolio Standard, thereby reducing the percentage of nonrenewable fuels used to generate the electricity throughout the state’s grid.

For cases where a building’s implementable efficiency measures and renewable sources do not achieve net zero, Cambridge has proposed a local “offset” fund.  In contrast to offsets that protect global carbon sinks such as tropical rain forests, this locally-managed but independently operated carbon fund would be used to support Cambridge-based greenhouse gas reduction and renewable/low-carbon energy projects. No timeline for this fund is included in the report.  This is an implicit acknowledgement that such a fund would require extensive engagement from all sectors of the real estate industry and other drivers of investment in Cambridge’s built environment.

The latest update on Cambridge’s plan can be found at https://www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/Projects/Climate/~/media/1CA864BB4D9E421E858D647D36C3FF76.ashx.