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.

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