“If passed, it will be the most consequential environmental initiative that the city has passed, possibly ever.”
In the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions in Boston, one obstacle looms large. The majority of Boston’s emissions—about 70%—come from its buildings, with just the largest 4% contributing to over half of the city’s total carbon footprint.
Introduced to the City Council in June, the proposed Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance would target these emissions head on. It would require the largest 4% of buildings to meet increasingly aggressive emissions targets, eventually reaching net zero by 2050.
The proposal would replace the existing Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), which essentially requires annual reports from large buildings on energy use. City Council President Matt O’Malley, who wrote the original ordinance and is now finishing his 11th and final year on the council, is the lead sponsor of the update, commonly called BERDO 2.0.
“This is something that is my number one legislative priority with my only five months left in office, so we’re gonna do what we can to make sure this is done well and done right,” O’Malley said in an interview. “This, if passed, will be the most consequential environmental initiative that the city has passed, possibly ever, certainly in my time on this body.”
Over the past two years, Boston’s Environment Department in collaboration with the City Council has met frequently with a wide array of residents, advocates, public health experts, and business leaders to construct a policy to curb Boston’s largest source of emissions.
“We’re trying to run as open and transparent a process as possible. At the end of the day this is something that will have a profoundly positive effect on our city, on our people, and on our planet,” O’Malley said.
Key to the policy formation was feedback from residents in the neighborhoods most impacted by air pollution and the worsening effects of climate change. The city relied on community organizations including Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), the Chinese Progressive Association, City Life/Vida Urbana, and New England United for Justice to lead resident advisory groups to build a policy focused on the needs of those most affected.
According to Dwaign Tyndal, the Executive Director of ACE, these conversations frequently centered on housing and air quality. A lack of affordable, well-insulated housing, combined with elevated temperatures fueled by climate change and urban heat islands, make environmental justice communities particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. Poor air quality has serious daily consequences on residents in these neighborhoods, from Roxbury to Chinatown, leading to high rates of asthma and heightened effects from COVID-19.
“The feedback that we received from residents was really, really powerful,” Tyndal said. “They were ready to respond, they were ready to be organized, and more importantly, they were ready to learn and to spread this information to family and friends in their neighborhoods.”
The democratic approach to formulating the policy is apparent in the version introduced by Councilor O’Malley. It would create a review board made up of two-thirds individuals nominated by community-based organizations (as opposed to building trade associations, or the building owners themselves). The review board would then oversee the implementation of the emissions standards, along with an ‘Equitable Emissions Investment Fund’ that would redistribute money from fines and compliance payments to environmental justice projects, including those related to affordable housing, air quality, and job training.
“It would be a new conversation going forward, because the people that are the most impacted will be the individuals that are the decision makers going forward,” Tyndal said.
To reach net zero by 2050, the proposal includes decreasing five-year emissions standards for different types of buildings. There is some flexibility in how building owners can meet these standards. If owners are unable to make the necessary building renovations, they can make ‘alternative compliance payments’ that would go to the environmental justice fund overseen by the review board.
Offsets, which would allow buildings to continue emitting fossil fuels while paying to reduce emissions elsewhere, were notably left out of the introduced version of the bill.
“I think one of the issues with offsets is that the viability or voracity of many of these offsets can be called into question,” said O’Malley. “Rather than doing offsets, I think it’s more important that we actually get the carbon out of these buildings.”
Moving forward, the updated ordinance appears to have strong support in the council, in the mayor’s office, and in the community at large. In a recent hearing, every councilor present expressed their support for the proposal, along with the Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space Rev. Mariama White-Hammond. Nearly all of the public testimony at the hearing was in favor of keeping or strengthening the ordinance as written (by my count 40 to 1).
However, as with any serious effort to reduce emissions, there has been pushback. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, and NAIOP (the commercial real estate development association), all submitted written testimony for the hearing, calling for various changes to the existing language. Much of the criticism focused on the makeup and powers of the review board, the size of the fines for noncompliance, and the options available to meet the requirements.
“NAIOP believes that in order to create a fair, non-political process, the Committee consider requiring that fifty percent of the board members be nominated by trade associations or companies actively engaged in the development, ownership or management of building sizes and types affected by the proposed Ordinance,” the development association said in their written testimony.
Andy Wells-Bean, the campaign coordinator for the Boston Climate Action Network (BCAN), has been an advocate for strong emissions limits throughout this process. He said that while he expects the ordinance to pass, its final language may be hotly contested.
“I expect that some building owners will feel like they want a cheaper way out, and they want more control, so we’ll have to see how hard they decide to push back,” said Wells-Bean. “I think the discussion may center around—Are we going to allow them offsets? Are they going to be able to buy wind credits from the Dakotas or Texas or something? Who should be on that review board? Should it be all community members, or should we let these big building owners regulate themselves?”
But with the existing framework, every community organization present at the hearing expressed strong support for the ordinance, including members of ACE, BCAN, Mothers Out Front, the Greater Boston Labor Council, the Chinese Progressive Association, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, and Back Bay Green.
Looking forward, the city will hold working sessions for the policy in early August, and advocates hope that the ordinance will come up for a vote in the City Council by early fall.
“It’s been amazing to me the number of different groups that have showed up to those climate policy open houses, who participated in the resident advisory groups, who have been submitting testimony to the city councilors and to the mayor, the number of people around the city who are quietly working on this,” Wells-Bean said. “It’s not a big flashy issue. It’s kind of a weird wonky issue that takes a little explaining, but it’s gained an enormous amount of community and advocate support around the city, and I think a lot of people will be very, very pleased when it does eventually get passed.”
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.