As climate change unfolds, some will be impacted more severely than others. Whether through less protection from extreme temperature swings or an inability to afford rising energy bills, our most vulnerable communities deserve equitable solutions that will slash emissions and improve health and affordability across the Commonwealth. However, the unintended consequences of Massachusetts’ approach to end the use of fossil fuels in homes has left communities jumping through hoops to electrify new construction.
Almost 30 percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels to heat buildings. In urban centers like Boston, emissions from buildings reach as high as 70 percent. That’s why in 2019, Brookline voted to end the use of fossil fuels in new buildings. Now, after years of advocacy work, Brookline is the sixth municipality to join the state’s Municipal Fossil Fuel Free Building Demonstration Program, which allows 10 communities to mandate all-electric new and major construction. However, the victory is bittersweet for millions of Bay Staters who are shut out of this program.
States and cities nationwide are recognizing the equitable benefits of pollution-free homes. Yet communities in Massachusetts have been hamstrung by arbitrary caps and regulatory hurdles, limiting the promise of pollution-free buildings to the privileged few. Amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, relatively few municipalities were able to pass legislation to qualify for the 10 available slots. Even though Boston, Somerville, Salem, and Northampton passed legislation to signal that they would like to be part of this program, state regulators have made no effort to fill the empty slot created when one community was obliged to drop out and those cities are on a waitlist.
The nine remaining communities — Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, Lexington, Arlington, Concord, Lincoln, Acton, and Aquinnah — are smaller, whiter, and wealthier than those on the waiting list, representing less than 6 percent of Massachusetts residents. In contrast, the four waitlisted communities represent double the population, five times the people of color, and 65 percent of the average income of the included communities. Health disparities are equally glaring, with 50 percent higher rates of childhood asthma in waitlisted communities. While Boston has made strides to reduce emissions from city-owned buildings, Mayor Michelle Wu noted in a recent interview that her “hands are tied” to tackle emissions from the residential sector. By excluding these communities, many vulnerable residents will have to live with new buildings that continue to pollute their air.
Pollution-free buildings should not be reserved for wealthy communities. Beyond the climate benefits, all-electric, efficient homes are cheaper to build, have lower monthly utility bills, and do not emit dangerous pollutants hazardous to health. Burning fossil fuels in buildings is a major source of outdoor air pollution. But gas appliances also emit dangerous levels of pollutants inside our homes, which exacerbate respiratory and other illnesses.
Children are particularly at risk, as 15 percent of childhood asthma in Massachusetts has been attributed to the use of gas stoves. A 2022 report found benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, leaks from gas stoves even when appliances are turned off. Environmental justice communities could benefit even more from pollution-free homes because these communities are often disproportionately exposed to air pollution, suffering higher rates of related illnesses like asthma and heart disease.
Environmental justice communities are also disproportionately at risk of experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, including extreme heat. While Massachusetts is projected to see more frequent extreme heat events, only 32 percent of homes have central air conditioning. By encouraging the adoption of highly efficient electric heat pumps in new homes, which provide both heating and cooling, the state can close disparities to life-saving cooling during climate-driven heat waves.
Governor Maura Healey has said she wants to prioritize climate and apply an “equity lens to everything we do,” promising to make Massachusetts number one on climate resiliency. The governor has made great strides to help existing homes retrofit to become all-electric. But if the Healey administration is serious about reducing our carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030, the state cannot continue to hook new homes up to fossil fuels, necessitating costly and time-consuming retrofits.
Until every community has the opportunity to build all-electric new construction, the state will lock in the health, economic, and climate disparities for decades to come. Instead, Healey and the Legislature must deliver equitable climate action by allowing every municipality to end the use of fossil fuels in new buildings, spreading the benefits of electrification across every community.
Lisa Cunningham is co-founder of ZeroCarbonMA. Kannan Thiruvengadam is director of Eastie Farm and vice president of the executive committee of Sierra Club Massachusetts.