Boston City Council on Wednesday voted 8-4 to approve a new climate-friendly state building code that strongly discourages the use of fossil fuels in new construction and major renovations citywide.
The move will help “cement Boston as a leader in sustainability and climate resilience,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, chair of the Committee on Government Operations, who supported the effort.
Mayor Michelle Wu must now give the measure final approval, which the mayor’s office told the Globe would happen quickly. When she does, Boston will become the largest city in the state to implement the optional code — known as a “specialized stretch code” — since it was finalized last year by the state energy department under former Governor Charlie Baker.
The code stops short of an outright ban on fossil fuels for heating, cooling, and appliances like stoves and clothing dryers in new buildings and major renovations. Instead, it aims to drastically curtail fossil fuels in buildings by adding expensive, climate-friendly requirements for developers choosing to install fossil fuel connections, with varied energy efficiency requirements for different building types. That also includes requiring developers building with gas or oil to pay for additional electrical wiring so that buildings can easily become all-electric in the future, as well as the inclusion of solar panels on developments.
Brookline and Watertown were the first two communities to adopt the new building code, in mid-January. Boston will be the eighth community to opt in.
The adoption followed a press conference earlier this month where Wu announced she intended to adopt the code and also said she will designate $10 million to help affordable multi-family buildings become more energy efficient.
“What is abundantly clear is that all of our challenges and opportunities are interrelated,” she said at a March 14 press 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.”
Burning fossil fuels for heat, cooling, and appliances in buildings accounts for nearly a third of emissions across the state of Massachusetts. In Boston, the share is even greater, with buildings accounting for nearly three-quarters of all planet-heating pollution.
Logan Malik, executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, said the adoption of the code will do more than help city officials cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“They will also be improving indoor air quality, increasing the resiliency of new buildings, and significantly reducing energy usage which could lead to reduced energy costs,” he said.
The move could also boost environmental justice. Research shows that in Massachusetts, people of color are exposed to 55 percent more pollution from residential appliances compared to white communities, according to a 2021 paper.
“The City of Boston is committed to doing the work to protect the entire city, beginning with those communities that are bearing the biggest environmental burdens,” said Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space for the City of Boston, in an e-mailed statement.
Wednesday’s vote comes amid a slew of efforts to wean Boston off oil and gas. In January, Wu announced plans to require all new construction and major renovations of public buildings to be free of fossil fuels.
The city is also applying to participate in a pilot program approved by the Legislature last year, which would allow 10 cities or towns to fully ban fossil fuels entirely from new construction and major renovations. Adopting the specialized code is a necessary requirement for participation. The state will decide whether Boston can participate sometime after March 2024.
Lisa Cunningham, founder of the nonprofit ZeroCarbonMA, called Wednesday’s vote a “watershed moment,” but said the state should now go even further to support efforts to kick oil and gas by allowing any number of municipalities to ban fossil fuels.
“Massachusetts residents want and deserve the opportunity to build healthier communities and pollution-free homes,” she said.
The vote followed a meeting on Tuesday between councilors and city officials to hear more about the code, Arroyo said at the hearing.
The City Council was expected to vote on the building code at last week’s hearing, but chose to delay over concerns from some representatives — including District 3 Councilor Frank Baker, Councilors At-Large Erin Murphy and Michael Flaherty, and Council President Ed Flynn — who expressed concern that the council did not hold a public hearing about the measure.
This left little opportunity to hear from stakeholders, particularly representatives from the building trade unions, such as electrical workers, pipefitters, and gas workers, the councilors said. All four voted down the measure on Wednesday.
“I just don’t like the precedent it sets when we don’t allow organized labor to speak on an important issue,” said Flynn on Wednesday.
But Hessann Farooqi, advocacy director for Boston Climate Action Network, said the state went through a rigorous process when designing the code which included consultation with labor unions.
“There was a lengthy process of stakeholder engagement that included conferring with the building trades,” he said.
Farooqi said that Boston has more construction overall, and a wider variety of construction, than other communities that have approved the measure. In recent years, for instance, the city has seen a boom in the construction of labs and life science buildings, which have highly specific electricity and infrastructure requirements.
“We really can implement something as ambitious and important as this, despite the level of complexity that we see in Boston,” he said. “This provides a very important [example] for other cities across the state and other large urban cities across the country who might be looking to do similar things.”