Mayor Michelle Wu said she is working to adopt a new climate-friendly state building code that would strongly discourage the use of fossil fuels in new construction in Boston.
The move, which must be approved by the City Council, would make Boston by far the largest city in the state to implement the code since it was finalized by the state energy department late last year as an option for communities looking to take action toward reducing greenhouse emissions.
Fossil fuels burned for heat and appliances in buildings account for nearly a third of emissions statewide and nearly 75 percent of Boston’s emissions. The specialized code stops short of completely banning the use of fossil fuels in new buildings but adds costly, climate-friendly requirements for developers wanting to install gas connections, like solar panels and additional electric wiring.
In announcing her hopes for the new code, Wu also said she is designating $10 million to help affordable multifamily buildings become more energy efficient.
“What is abundantly clear is that all of our challenges and opportunities are interrelated,” she said at a Thursday news conference. “Making our buildings more energy efficient doesn’t just help us preserve our planet. It also improves indoor air quality, lowers operating costs, and reduces the energy costs burden for residents so that all of our housing is more affordable.”
Across the state, five communities have already adopted the code and dozens more have signaled that they plan to do the same. But the state’s biggest, most densely populated city taking this step would mark a new threshold.
“It’s definitely an important step,” said Curt Newton, a member of the Boston Green New Deal Coalition a group of over 60 organizations working to realize the vision of a Green New Deal in Boston. “But a lot depends on what it actually looks like to put it into practice, to make sure that it rolls out with justice and equity at the center. Keeping affordability at the center is really, really key.”
The state requires municipalities looking to adopt the code to seek the approval of legislative bodies like town meetings or city councils. Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara, who chairs the housing and environmental justice committees, said she was confident her colleagues on the council would approve it.
Switching from fossil fuels for home heating to electric heat pumps is a cornerstone of city and state climate plans. But concerns about the cost of housing in Boston, which has skyrocketed in recent years, has led some advocates to worry about “green gentrification.”
Others, however, say fossil fuel-free buildings are unlikely to cost more. A report commissioned last year by the state Department of Energy Resources found that, thanks in large part to rebates offered by state programs, it now usually costs less to build fully electric residential buildings. A variety of federal incentives are now also available.
Still, some say the code could severely complicate the construction of buildings like hospitals, labs, manufacturing facilities and data centers.
“There is a lot of concern among the broadly defined development community that it’s going to be very difficult to comply with these codes,” said Kate Dineen, of the nonprofit business advocacy organization A Better City.
In addition to adopting the new building code, Wu has said she wants Boston to participate in a pilot program that allows 10 Massachusetts communities to ban fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. The program was approved by the Legislature last year, and participants will be announced later this year.
State Senator Michael Barrett, who helped write the 2022 climate legislation that created the pilot program, said he hoped to see Boston ultimately get a spot but noted that adopting the new code is a big step on its own. “By itself, this is going to lead to a lot of new all-electric construction,” Barrett said.
The $10 million for affordable, multifamily buildings is meant to fund insulation and other energy-saving measures in existing buildings. Officials acknowledged that $10 million won’t go far in a city filled with old, inefficient buildings.
“The focus there is really to build a market for deep energy retrofits and to learn what it takes to do this kind of work that is so critical to reducing emissions,” said Oliver Sellers-Garcia, the city’s Green New Deal director. It will also allow Boston to create a model that it could scale up as more state and federal funds become available.
John Walkey, of the environmental justice organization GreenRoots, said residents are encountering barriers as they try to make their homes more climate friendly, including long wait times to connect new solar panels to the grid and conflicting messages from contractors about which codes to abide by for electric upgrades. He said the new $10 million program should help.
“The more projects we have and the more that those projects have funding to really justify moving them forward, the quicker it’ll be for us to identify these issues, bring them to the table and get resolutions,” Walkey said.
The two efforts announced Thursday come in addition to the city’s BERDO ordinance, which requires buildings with more than 15 units or more than 20,000 square feet to reduce emissions over time to get to net zero by 2050.