More than three years after introducing her Green New Deal plan for Boston as a mayoral candidate, Mayor Michelle Wu said in an interview last week that the city will not be participating in a state program that will allow 10 communities to ban developers from including fossil fuels in new buildings. The pilot program is the only way for Massachusetts communities to take this step without violating state regulations.
Wu’s decision not to apply for the program came as a surprise to environmental advocates and legislators who have been trying to move the state away from heating and cooling new structures with fossil fuels. Constructing buildings that are only powered by electricity is considered among the low-hanging fruit of plans to decarbonize. Buildings account for roughly 70 percent of Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The decision marks an abrupt departure from the mayor’s recent statements, delivered in press conferences and radio interviews, that the city intended to participate in the program and lead by example.
Wu said, “it breaks my heart,” but that the city was not applying for the state program because it appears it was not actually intended for a city as complex as Boston, with its large population and already-strained electric grid. She said she had gotten “clear indications that Boston would not be chosen for the one available spot.”
Maria Hardiman, a spokesperson for the state Department of Energy Resources, said the challenge for Boston is that it’s “electrically similar” — meaning the age of the infrastructure and demands on the system are comparable — to several other cities or towns that have already been selected for the program, including Cambridge, Brookline, Newton, and Arlington. Those similarities “would have presented a challenge in the selection process” because the pilot program is aimed at getting data from a diverse group of communities.
Climate advocates, however, said they fear Boston’s lack of inclusion in the program could be the result of the pressure from real estate developers, many of whom oppose fossil fuel bans.
Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development trade group, said that her organization had been working since the beginning of Wu’s administration to provide “real-world feedback” about how major policy shifts would be felt in the developer community. “We are pleased that the mayor recognizes the challenges associated with a fossil fuel ban at this time and we look forward to working with the administration to ensure housing and economic development projects can proceed,” Small said.
Construction costs have soared recently, at the same time that demand for office space has plummeted. Boston-area developers have expressed concerns about adding additional costs, like requiring buildings to be electrified, but studies have rebutted those arguments. Rebates have made construction without fossil fuel installation less expensive for most new buildings.
Turning away from fossil fuels and constructing more energy-efficient buildings also brings long-term savings, but tenants, not developers, normally reap those benefits.
Cities and towns across Massachusetts have been trying to ban fossil fuels in new buildings for years, since Brookline first proposed such a ban in 2019 but was thwarted by state law. The fossil fuel-free demonstration program, which was included in Massachusetts’ 2022 climate law, created the first path to doing so — but only for 10 cities and towns.
“The irony here is that one of the inspirations for the language in the legislation was then-candidate Wu’s Green New Deal for Boston,” said state Senator Michael Barrett of Lexington, who helped write the climate law. “It was very aspirational.”
The first nine spots in the program have been taken by cities and towns that had taken steps prior to last year’s legislation to pass a ban, and that met certain affordable housing criteria. The communities on the list are: Acton, Aquinnah, Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, and Newton. The final spot is to be decided by the state Department of Energy Resources and up until now has been a four-way race between Boston, Northampton, Salem, and Somerville.
In order to apply for that final spot, all of the communities had to file legislation with the state signifying their intent and also had to adopt a new building code that incentivizes building without fossil fuels, though stops short of banning them. Boston took both those steps.
The adoption of Boston’s new building code already goes a long way toward getting fossil fuels out of new buildings, said Kyle Murray, Massachusetts program director at the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center. The code is “strong and will really help drive down emissions,” he said. “So I still think Boston is going to do some amazing things, but still — I’m a little disappointed.”
Advocates wanted to see Boston, with its large, diverse population, win the final spot in the demonstration program to help prove that requiring new buildings and major renovations to be fossil fuel free can be done affordably, even in Massachusetts’ biggest city. Other major cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Montreal, have already adopted similar bans.
“It’s important to note that at its heart, Boston’s application to the demonstration project is about climate justice and equity,” wrote Lisa Cunningham, director of ZeroCarbonMA, a nonprofit advocating for cutting fossil fuels from buildings, in an email to Wu and other city officials on Tuesday. “It shouldn’t be just wealthy first-come first-serve communities who get to mandate cleaner buildings and less indoor and outdoor air pollution.”
Upon learning that Boston, a city with roughly 10 percent of the state’s population, would not be applying for the program, Cunningham was frustrated. “The state’s own climate plans have repeatedly emphasized that constructing all-electric buildings at the point of new and major construction is essential,” she said. “This is inconsistent with creating a livable future for our children.”
Andee Krasner, a volunteer with the Boston chapter of the climate advocacy group Mothers Out Front, said not applying for the pilot is short sighted. “Those same buildings will need costly retrofits to meet climate mandates,” she said.
Some city leaders were not alarmed by Wu’s decision. Kate Dineen, president of A Better City, a Greater Boston business organization, said the state pilot program “poses several challenges,” ranging from the feasibility of implementation to how it could impact low-income residents. She said that steps the city has already taken to regulate emissions from buildings have it well-positioned to meet its climate goals.
It’s not clear when the city realized it was not going to participate in the program. As recently as July, Wu said in an interview on WBUR’s Radio Boston that, “We have the resources, the willpower, the partnerships, that are ready to go, and yet we’re still waiting to hear back if we will get into the state’s 10 communities pilot program to be able to fully regulate how we can allow for or phase out fossil fuel infrastructure in buildings.”
During her interview with the Globe last week, Wu noted the steps the city has already taken to get fossil fuels out of buildings, including banning fossil fuels in new municipal buildings and a rule the city adopted that requires large buildings to gradually phase out fossil fuels.
Wu also said this wasn’t the end of her efforts to slash the carbon footprint of buildings. In the future, she may look at additional changes to the zoning code in Boston, or file another Home Rule petition with the state “for what we need instead of trying to fit ourselves into this program that doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to do.”
Either way, she said, “We need to be moving faster.”