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Cambridge enacts ambitious building emissions reduction standards

The new mandates are some of the most stringent in the country, experts say.

Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan said: “I’ve been working on this for a very long time, and this is really the first serious, significant climate action that the city has taken.”Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Cambridge’s City Council passed a landmark measure last month that mandates ambitious reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the city’s medium and large nonresidential buildings, marking a strong step toward combating climate change.

Under the legislation, which was approved 8-0, commercial buildings between 25,000 and 100,00 square feet must reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Buildings larger than 100,000 square feet — mainly labs and commercial headquarters — must do so by 2035.

The measure will affect some 1,100 buildings.

One of only a handful of building emissions laws nationwide, the legislation targets a sector that’s long stymied Cambridge’s progress on climate goals. The lion’s share of the city’s emissions — close to 80 percent — come from building operations and construction, according to data cited in the city’s 2021 update to the Net Zero Action Plan.

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The new mandates will cut Cambridge’s “BEUDO emissions” in half by 2030, and by about 70 percent by 2035, according to the city. “BEUDO emissions” refers to emissions from non-residential buildings larger than 25,000 square feet and residential buildings with 50 or more units, a category that generates about 60 percent of Cambridge’s total emissions, according to City Manager Yi-An Huang.

“It’s really quite groundbreaking,” said Councilor Quinton Zondervan, who helped lead the push in concert with Councilor Patricia Nolan, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, and activist groups like the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, and Mothers Out Front. “I’ve been working on this for a very long time, and this is really the first serious, significant climate action that the city has taken.”

Known as BEUDERO, short for the Building Energy Use Disclosure and Emissions Reductions Ordinance, the policy revises the 2014 Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance, BEUDO, which mandated that building owners report their annual emissions. BEUDERO’s passage comes in the wake of Boston’s 2021 adoption of a similar measure aiming to address emissions in large buildings. But Cambridge’s law is more stringent — its 2035 timeline for the largest buildings is 15 years earlier than Boston’s.

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The Cambridge measure, which was filed as a set of amendments to the previous BEUDO legislation, comes as the state is working to move away from fossil fuels.

Cities and towns across Massachusetts, including Brookline and Watertown, are adopting new building codes discouraging fossil fuel use in new construction. A state climate bill passed last year established a pilot program allowing 10 towns to ban fossil fuel use in new construction altogether. Cambridge is planning to participate in the program.

BEUDERO, the final part of Cambridge’s three-fold Green New Deal policy bundle, is intended to put the city on track to meet its goal of using only renewable energy by 2035.

Though climate advocates applauded the legislation, it has also received pushback from property owners, who have voiced concerns about the feasibility of complying with the ambitious deadlines.

“These BEUDO amendments are unworkable, [they] penalize business owners, property owners and residents for not being able to achieve the unachievable by imposing financial burdens that are unfair and unjust,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, in an e-mail.

Though decarbonizing buildings is challenging, experts say it’s not only possible, but is a necessary step toward achieving climate goals.

“By US standards, this is one of the most ambitious existing-building emissions regulations to date, and complex details will need to be resolved,” said Holly Samuelson, a research faculty member at the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, in an e-mail. “However, any realistic path to avoiding the most severe consequences of climate change involves a major effort to decarbonize buildings ... and soon.“

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Buildings can reduce their emissions by up to 30 percent “off the bat” by ensuring their electricity comes from renewable sources through programs like the Cambridge Community Electricity Program, which allows customers to purchase 100 percent green electricity for an added cost, Zondervan said. Energy efficiency improvements and “very feasible technologies” like geothermal heat pumps can also go a long way, he said.

Unlike Boston’s regulation, BEUDERO allows carbon offsets — a controversial mechanism by which a company funds carbon-reducing activities elsewhere to cancel out its own emissions — though they must be vetted and approved by a soon-to-be-created review board. There’s also an “alternative compliance” option: Companies can pay a fine of $234 per ton of excess emissions.

Still, some property owners say they feel unequipped to decarbonize their buildings without technical and financial assistance.

“I’m not Harvard. I’m not MIT. I don’t have a sustainability team,” said Patrick Barrett, a real estate developer who is on the board of the Central Square Business Improvement District. “I’m fully appreciative of the need to do this, but I feel like I’ve been told to solve an unsolvable problem with a blindfold on and my hands tied behind my back.”

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To ease this burden, the city’s Community Development Department is working on a centralized “resource hub” to provide technical assistance and streamline information on utility, state, and federal incentives to building owners. The department, whose staff introduced the legislation in 2021, has put $2 million toward the effort and hired a full-time employee to work specifically on implementation and enforcement of the mandates.

Property owners have also criticized the city council’s planning process as not being sufficiently inclusive. There was “zero representation for commercial owners” at a recent public hearing for BEUDERO, Barrett said. “A lot of this stuff blindsided everybody. I was disappointed in what the council did, but more disappointed in how they did it.”

Nolan said the city put out mailings and public notices, but acknowledged that outreach efforts to small and medium property owners occurred “late in the process.” Future climate legislation should and would involve a more “transparent, open, and inclusive” process, she said.

Some city councilors and climate activists think the amendment should be even stronger, citing the accelerating impact of climate change.

Margery Davies, a Cambridge resident and active member of Mothers Out Front, a nonprofit that advocates for climate action, said she wishes the amendment was stronger.

“I’m still absolutely planning to continue to pay attention and not just say, ‘Oh, wipe my hands. It’s done.’ No, it’s not done,” she said.

Some city councilors are planning future additions to strengthen BEUDERO. Zondervan said he wants to reintroduce an amendment that would require new commercial buildings to be net-zero by 2030.

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Hearings will be held later this summer, he said.

“We know the technology exists, and the economics already makes sense,” Zondervan said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to build a building tomorrow that’s still depending on fossil fuels.”

The Green New Deal policies also include the Green Jobs Ordinance, which will establish free green jobs training programs for low-income residents, and a zoning petition requiring building owners to report expected emissions from the use and building materials of new construction projects.

Cambridge officials hope the Green New Deal, and especially BEUDERO, will inspire similar climate actions across the state and country.

Nationwide, emissions standards for buildings are “growing in number and rigor,” said Samuelson. “Other cities will likely learn from Cambridge’s research and experience, especially with the 2035 goal for the largest commercial buildings.”

BEUDERO’s passage is reason for optimism, Zondervan said.

“I think it’s really hopeful, because it’s pretty easy to get depressed when you’re looking at the headlines or when you step outside and you’re choking on wildfire smoke. But the reality is that we can do a lot more about this problem than we are doing.”

An earlier version of this story misstated who introduced the legislation and mischaracterized who led the effort to pass it. The legislation was introduced by Cambridge’s Community Development Department and was led by City Councilors Quinton Zondervan and Patricia Nolan, and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui.

The earlier version also misstated the scale of expected emissions cuts. Only the emissions from BEUDO structures in aggregate will be cut in half by 2030 and 70 percent by 2035.


Maliya Ellis can be reached at maliya.ellis@globe.com. Follow her @EllisMaliya.