fb-pixel Skip to main content

In a major step to address climate change, Boston’s City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a landmark ordinance that will require the city’s large buildings to significantly cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

The ordinance, one of only a few of its kind in the country, mandates that some 2,200 buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger will have to start meeting emissions caps in 2025. Another 1,300 buildings that are 20,000 square feet or larger will have to start meeting emissions caps by 2030. The ordinance aims to cut all of those buildings’ emissions in half by the end of the decade and completely by 2050.

Advertisement



The ordinance, which is expected to be signed by Acting Mayor Kim Janey in the coming days, applies to about 4 percent of the city’s buildings, but they are responsible for 60 percent of Boston’s building emissions, city officials said. Building emissions account for about two-thirds of all the city’s carbon emissions.

“This is the most transformative thing we have done for climate in Boston’s 400-year history,” said City Councilor Matt O’Malley, the chief architect of the ordinance. “It’s aggressive, but achievable, and it allows for five-year increments to check on our progress. This is a big win for the city.”

The bill received significant support from Janey’s environmental team as well as environmental advocates, but it also drew a significant amount of pushback from developers and building owners.

The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s environment chief, said she was “ecstatic” that the ordinance would soon become law.

“This indicates how serious we all understand the climate crisis to be for the city,” she said.

She said the ordinance was modeled on similar measures in New York, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.

“What we really want is for folks to decarbonize their buildings,” White-Hammond said. “We hope this gives the building sector and development the clarity they need . . . but we know what the future looks like. We can pay for it now, or we can pay more for it later.”

Advertisement



Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a lobbyist for developers and building owners, said her group persuaded councilors to revise the ordinance to give landlords more flexibility.

For example, the ordinance allows building owners to apply for a six-month extension in the first year that they’re required to report their emissions. They will also be able to appeal to a newly created review board, staffed mainly by members from local groups, to change the dates they report their emissions. The ordinance will also allow the review board to rely on financial experts and energy providers for recommendations on changes to the rules and on any hardship compliance plans its members consider.

“NAIOP will continue to engage with the city of Boston throughout this process to advocate for industry representation, share critical expertise, and provide thoughtful feedback to ensure the adoption of clear, predictable, and achievable rules,” Small said in a statement.

City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, competing in the general election next month to become mayor, supported the ordinance, known as BERDO 2.0. It revises the 2013 Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, which required commercial and residential buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger to report their energy and water use.

“This is now the new starting point,” Wu said at a press conference shortly before the vote. “We need to make sure we’re stepping up now.”

Advertisement



Essaibi George said the ordinance reflected a consensus in the city that it’s time to address climate change. “We are setting real targets and requirements as a city to respond to this climate emergency — practically and responsibly,” she said at the same press conference.

The ordinance establishes declining emissions caps for 13 different sectors, such as health care and universities. Collectively, each sector will have to comply with the requirements of cutting their emissions by a specific amount and timetable outlined in the ordinance.

The ordinance also creates a buildings emissions investment fund that will distribute money collected from fines for noncompliant building owners to those in lower-income communities who are in need of help reducing their emissions.

Environmental advocates said it was about time the city took action.

“Energy efficiency is always the greenest, cheapest renewable energy, and Boston’s aging large buildings are the Saudi Arabia of wasted energy for us to tap,” said Audrey Schulman, president of the Home Energy Efficiency Team, or HEET, a Cambridge environmental advocacy group. “The ordinance can help reduce the burden that communities disproportionately affected by the climate crisis . . . continue to bear.”

Amy Longsworth, director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a private advisory group that helped the city create a climate action plan in 2019, said the ordinance was a key component of that plan.

Advertisement



“It’s absolutely essential to reaching the carbon neutrality goal for 2050,” she said. “Without it, we wouldn’t hit that goal. This is groundbreaking, and I hope it sets the pace for other municipalities.”

Daniel McDonald of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.