Boston Poised to Lead on Powerful Building Emissions Reduction Ordinance

Boston Poised to Lead on Powerful Building Emissions Reduction Ordinance

The NRDC Action Fund is driving climate action in cities across the country through the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. This post is written by Emily Barkdoll.

Boston has been a leader in addressing climate change, and now, in one way you may not expect: buildings. With the introduction of an amendment to strengthen their Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) to the Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance – BERDO 2.0 – Boston is stepping up to meet the demands of their goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Large existing buildings (like office buildings or commercial buildings) are the most significant contribution to Boston’s carbon pollution, thanks in large part to the oil and gas that is used to power, heat, and cool them. A couple thousand of Boston’s largest buildings account for nearly half of the city’s carbon emissions.

Councilor Matt O’Malley introduced the amendment to require buildings to meet an emissions standard that decreases over time. A building emissions reduction ordinance is a powerful tool utilized in only a handful of cities to date, which allows cities to reduce energy and emissions impacts of existing buildings. Recognizing the need to consider this amendment, all councilors have signed on and it’s been referred to the Government Operations Committee. 

This is a bold step that cements Boston’s legacy of climate leadership: Boston’s city council has the opportunity to be the fifth city in the country to pass a performance standard. Even better? This ambitious policy yields benefits outside of emissions reductions. Low-income and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Reducing emissions through better building performance will lead to better indoor and outdoor air quality over time, which will improve public health. More efficient buildings also result in lower utility bills for residents and owners. The work needed to ensure buildings meet their emissions reductions will create more quality jobs.

The proposed building emissions standard amendment builds on the existing BERDO ordinance, which requires all commercial and residential buildings over 35,000 square feet to report their energy and water use to the city every year. This ensures that buildings are measuring and managing their energy consumption. The data collected enables buildings to see how they compare to their peer buildings and how they perform year over year, to know if an efficiency upgrade is needed to keep costs low and keep pace with similar buildings. It also includes an energy action and assessment requirement, either reducing energy use or conducting an audit to understand how to do so. 

The original ordinance has been successful, but the city is still short of its climate goals. The update to the city’s Climate Action Plan in 2019 called for an amendment to BERDO to replace the energy action and assessment requirement with a building emissions performance standard by 2021. With the support of the American Cities Climate Challenge, local and national partners, and technical experts, the city is moving forward with that commitment.  Councilor O’Malley has taken steps to meet that need today.

The BERDO amendment will require that buildings meet an emissions standard, measured in kilograms of CO2e per square foot. These requirements will decrease over time and reduce emissions from buildings and accompanying co-pollutants. Buildings have discretion in how they meet their emissions standards but will be fined if they fail to do so. These fines will go to the Equitable Emissions Investment Fund, created under this amendment, which will prioritize benefits for environmental justice communities, including low-income affordable housing, high-quality jobs and economic inclusion, indoor air quality, community ownership, and local renewable energy development.

One of the most critical components is the creation of the Emissions Review Board. This board will be represented by diverse, local stakeholders with two thirds of the members nominated by the community and community-based organizations, prioritizing environmental justice communities. The board will approve or disapprove hardship compliance plans, expenditures from the Emissions Reduction Fund,and oversee enforcement action. 

Boston has led on climate action with an EV Readiness Ordinance, consistent top placement on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s scorecard, and Climate Action Plan that calls for ambitious action to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to name a few. In light of recent efforts across the country to introduce state legislation to preempt local jurisdictions from instituting policies to encourage decarbonization, Boston’s efforts are a welcome beacon of progress and leadership. Adoption of the building emissions reduction amendment is a foundational step following the success of BERDO to yield more equitable outcomes associated with meeting the city’s emissions reduction goals.