The City of Boston is seeking state permission to ban fossil fuels from new construction, a step toward reducing climate-harming emissions on a large scale, Mayor Michelle Wu announced Tuesday.
Days after Governor Charlie Baker signed a new climate law allowing 10 cities and towns in Massachusetts to implement such a ban, Wu said she is pushing for the state’s largest city to be included in the pilot project.
Banning fossil fuels in new buildings, forcing them to instead rely on alternative forms of heat — chiefly electric heat pumps — has been seen as a way to begin a larger-scale transition away from fossil fuels in homes and commercial businesses. If chosen for the pilot program, Boston would become one of a small handful of major US cities to enact such a ban, along with New York City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
“Our city is ready to join this pilot program to understand and lay out how banning new fossil fuel hookups can benefit our cities, our state, and our country,” Wu said at a news conference Tuesday, flanked by city councilors and legislators, environmental advocates and a housing developer who builds all-electric multifamily units in the area. “We need a policy that will provide cleaner air, lower energy costs, less carbon emissions, a better quality of life, and so much more.”
Wu announced that the city will file a home rule petition with the state Legislature, making it eligible to take part in the pilot, which exempts labs and medical facilities from the ban. The law gives some latitude to communities to craft their own ordinances that ban fossil fuels, but how much will depend on regulations that the state will likely issue on the bans. The Wu administration said it will start seeking input from community members, business leaders, environmental groups, and others to define what a ban would look like in Boston.
The mayor will also need to secure approval from the City Council.
If approved, the ban would help Boston take a bite out of its biggest source of emissions. The on-site burning of fossil fuels accounts for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions in Boston, according to the city. And compared to getting existing buildings off of fossil fuels, which represents a logistical — and expensive — challenge, ensuring that new buildings are built climate-friendly in the first place is considered an easier task.
In order to cut emissions at the scale and pace needed to address the climate crisis, experts say, a switch to electricity for heating must be paired with a transformation of the electrical grid, so it is powered by renewable energy, like solar and wind.
In the wake of Wu’s announcement, Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said she applauded Boston’s “commitment to meeting the scale and urgency of the climate crisis with thoughtful citywide action,” adding that the step would “move the city toward a greener, healthier, and more equitable future.”
Sonja Tengblad, who coordinates the East Boston team of Mothers Out Front, said that as a mother, especially, she was excited about the potential public health benefits of the announcement. “Boston kids are surrounded by traffic pollution, our schools have poor air quality, and some live only a few miles from Logan airport’s jet fumes,” she said. “Reducing their exposure any way possible is going to have huge effects.”
There was mixed reaction from developers. Some praised the step and said construction of fossil fuel-free houses is already happening in the city with great success. Others warned it could have a negative impact on the price of housing.
“Construction costs are already too high due to inflation and national supply chain challenges. Banning fossil fuels in new developments will only increase costs further,” said Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, in a statement. Instead of implementing a ban now, Vasil said he hoped to see the results of the pilot in other communities before Boston joins in.
That concern has been echoed by real estate developers since Brookline first began trying to ban fossil fuels in 2019, though recent reports — including one commissioned by the state Department of Energy Resources — have shown that in many cases, building all-electric can actually save money for both the builder and the home buyer.
Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, said she was encouraged by the mayor’s plan to involve members of the real estate community in conversations to shape the ban. “This is going to require some technical expertise,” she said, especially when it comes to building large apartment buildings and offices. “It gets a little more complicated when you talk about high-rises.”
It is unclear whether Boston’s petition will be approved by the state. The bill Baker signed last week gives priority to the first 10 communities to file home rule petitions, and 10 communities already have taken that step: Acton, Aquinnah, Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton, and West Tisbury.
According to state Senator Michael Barrett, who was a lead negotiator of the climate bill, Boston was asked to file a petition months ago, as the climate bill was being crafted. The city opted not to, according to a spokesperson for Wu, because officials wanted to see the final bill before proceeding.
Slashing emissions from buildings represents a “real leadership opportunity” for the city — one that will be harder to achieve because of Boston’s hesitation in starting the process earlier, Barrett said.
There is still a chance that Boston will be able to join the pilot. The climate bill requires that communities meet an affordable housing requirement — either with 10 percent affordable housing or via an approved zoning ordinance providing for at least one multifamily housing district — and it’s unclear whether all 10 communities that have filed so far will be able to do so. They will have 18 months to meet the requirement, and if it doesn’t happen, they lose their spot.
After that, any city or town that has gotten local approval for a ban via town meeting or city council and has filed a home rule petition can try to join the ban. The state Department of Energy Resources will decide which communities get spots, regardless of the order in which they apply.
Boston may find itself with some competition, according to Lisa Cunningham, a Brookline architect and cofounder of ZeroCarbonMA, a group working with towns to pressure the state to enact more aggressive climate policies.
“Environmental justice communities very much want to move forward on this, and we have a few that we are working with” that could file home rule petitions, Cunningham said. There are several others working on this as well, she said.
If Boston — or any other city or town — is not able to be one of the 10 communities in the pilot, there will be some options still, Barrett said. The Legislature could expand the pilot with a new law or approve individual home rule petitions.
“If the city of Boston puts its shoulder to the effort, it might be able to pull this off,” Barrett said.
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.