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.