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Curb Boston’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions

A measure before the City Council could slash the carbon pollution coming from large buildings.

Winthrop Center, under construction (with yellow top) in April, among other downtown office towers. About 70 percent of Boston's emissions come from homes, offices, and hospitals.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Boston is not the cars on our congested streets. It’s the buildings that hover over them.

About 70 percent of the city’s emissions come from our homes and offices and hospitals. Buildings use huge amounts of heating oil and natural gas and electricity to warm our living rooms, cool our lobbies, and keep our hallways well-lit.

So if Boston is to meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 — that is, if the city is to release only as much carbon as the environment can safely absorb — it has to get serious about reducing emissions from buildings. And that means approving a measure championed by City Council President Matt O’Malley that would require building owners to ratchet down emissions or face fines.


“For years we said, ‘We’re going to lower our greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050,’ and we’d all shake hands and take a picture and feel good about ourselves,” O’Malley says. “But we never actually put the roadmap in place on how to get there — that is, until now.”

O’Malley’s legislation builds on a 2013 measure called the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, or BERDO, which requires large commercial and residential buildings to report on their energy and water use. The new measure, known as BERDO 2.0, moves beyond mere reporting — laying out incremental, five-year targets for cutting back on emissions, with an end of goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. The ordinance would apply to commercial buildings that are 20,000 square feet or larger and residential buildings with at least 15 units.

That’s a targeted, effective intervention.

The measure would cover just 4 percent of Boston’s buildings. But together, those structures account for more than half of building emissions in the city. Building owners could take several routes to reducing emissions: better insulating their properties, turning off equipment when it’s not in use, replacing gas-powered boilers with electric, and buying power from cleaner sources, among others.


And those who struggle to meet targets could make “alternative compliance payments” to the city that would be used to fund projects in neighborhoods categorized as environmental justice communities — the low-income neighborhoods hardest hit by global warming. Those projects could include air quality improvement and other environmental initiatives, or affordable housing and job training.

The measure allows the alternative compliance payments to be phased out over time. And they should be; for the policy to have its full effect, buildings must meet their emissions reduction targets.

The proposal, which is similar to measures already adopted in New York, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., has faced some pushback. Jim Rooney, president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, says he supports the goal of reducing emissions. But he says the measure’s call for a new board to oversee the emissions program will add another layer of bureaucracy in a city that can already be difficult for businesspeople to navigate. And he worries that the panel, which will be appointed, in part, based on recommendations from community groups, may lack the appropriate technical expertise to oversee the effort.

Getting the proper expertise in place will be important. But that’s an issue that can be handled in the implementation phase. It will be incumbent on the city to appoint qualified people to the board and, just as important, to ensure the board has a skilled, robust support staff.


As for BERDO 2.0 adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to city government, it’s justified by the importance of the task: tackling Boston’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the concern emanating from some corners of Boston’s business community, many of the city’s biggest property owners are on board. The Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a consortium of executives from leading hospitals, universities, and developers, is supporting the measure.

John Cleveland, executive director of the group, says many members are already making serious moves toward greener buildings. And while he can understand why mid-size property owners have some anxiety, Cleveland says the city has little choice but to move. “We’re not doing this just because we want to do it,” he says. “We’re doing this because we have a climate crisis.”

We do indeed. And in a coastal city like Boston, it’s especially worrisome.

No more handshakes and photographs. We need action.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.