Even before Mayor Michelle Wu took office, her climate ambitions involved swinging for the fences. Near the top of her list: banning fossil fuels in new buildings.
Short of a change to state law, a pilot program with 10 Massachusetts communities was the only avenue for Boston to get there. Proponents consider a ban the most straightforward way to address the role buildings play in driving climate change, since it’s far easier to not have fossil fuels in new buildings in the first place than it is to retrofit them later.
Except, nothing has been easy.
Wu’s hopes of joining the state pilot program were dashed late last year when, upon learning Boston would be unlikely to get a coveted spot, the city opted to not even apply.
Now starting her second year in office, Wu is regrouping and rethinking her approach, pivoting to one that’s less about home runs, and more about small ball. Her administration is cobbling together new requirements and changes to city codes to get as close as possible to having net-zero buildings.
For example, a new zoning code, known as the zero net carbon building initiative, would require minimizing carbon emissions and maximizing on-site renewable energy production through solar panels. That code would apply to new buildings greater than 20,000 square feet, or developments containing 15 or more housing units.
Yet even at this more measured pace, Wu is getting pressure from both sides: from developers, who worry she’s going too far, too fast; and from climate advocates, who are still upset at giving up on an outright ban and want her to do more.
“There should be aggressive action to match the aggressive crisis that is climate change,” said Kannan Thiruvengadam, founder of Eastie Farm and one of many climate activists disappointed by the city’s decision to not apply for the pilot program.
Meanwhile Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development association, said that while she is relieved a ban isn’t on the table, she worries the approach Wu is taking is confusing and costly for developers.
“These new codes are very aggressive. They’re nation leading. They’re very new,” she said. “And as a result, I think there may be some unintended consequences.”
One prominent Boston developer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to be perceived as being against sustainable development, said going all-electric can add 4 to 5 percent to total costs — enough to stall development in a market where it’s already very expensive to build and facing labor shortages
Despite these pressures, the Wu administration said it’s plowing ahead and looking for new ways to get rid of fossil fuels in buildings, which account for 70 percent of emissions in the city.
“There’s real urgency here in my organization, and in the administration generally, about this issue and finding the right way to do it,” the city’s chief of planning, Arthur Jemison, said.
Some measures are already in motion. A specialized building code the city adopted last year stops short of being an outright ban of fossil fuel heat, but requires stringent energy efficiency measures and add-ons such as solar panels in buildings that plan to install gas line connections.
The 2021 Boston Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance requires large buildings in the city to gradually slash emissions, reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. And Boston has vowed to make its own stock of public housing fossil fuel free by 2030.
“Not only are we retrofitting our current housing to fossil fuel free, but we’re definitely not building anything new that doesn’t meet that standard,” said Kenzie Bok, administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. “So that’s driving thousands of units of construction in that direction.”
Hessann Farooqi, advocacy director for the Boston Climate Action Network, a nonprofit that organizes residents around city- and state-level climate justice policy, called Wu’s efforts “an imperfect solution,” noting that with a patchwork approach, some new buildings that use fossil fuels will likely still get built. “But, on balance, I think the city is doing almost as well as it could be,” he said.
Even the most strident climate advocates agree: It’s not nothing. But with climate change knocking on Boston’s door, some also say the city needs to be going further, faster.
“I’m very frustrated,” said Lisa Cunningham, director of ZeroCarbonMA, a nonprofit advocating for cutting fossil fuels from buildings, who said Boston’s decision to not apply for the state demonstration program “lacked leadership.”
“If you’re not doing this at the point of the new construction, you are burdening future taxpayers, future owners, future renters with these costs,” she said. “And you’re also burdening them with the health consequences and the climate consequences.”
But developers say the risks are high. They fear increased costs and worry that constraints on the electric grid will make it hard to get new, all-electric projects built because it takes so long to make upgrades to the local electric network.
“We do a lot of work in the city,” said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “How is it supposed to work with our grid? What is this going to look like if we had a number of projects move forward? Could we potentially have buildings that are all electric and they just don’t have enough power? And then what do we do?”
But advocates say that worry may be overblown.
All-electric new construction would result in just a 0.5 percent increase in load on Boston’s electric grid, according to data from the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders working to address climate change.
“That is a marginal increase,” said Cunningham.
There may be lessons for Boston in New York City, where a ban on fossil fuels in new buildings was passed in 2021 and went into effect for smaller buildings at the start of this year.
“To a certain extent, I think people need to appreciate that this is a solved problem,” Rohit Aggarwala, New York City’s climate chief, said. Despite worries from developers in Boston and elsewhere that building without fossil fuels is more expensive, “there does not seem to be an issue around a significant cost premium.”
Zachary Steinberg, senior vice president for public policy at the Real Estate Board of New York, said, on the whole, that appears to be true. The premium for an all-electric building is minor for small structures, he said, but increases as the building gets taller, though not so much to be a deterrent for development. The bigger worry, he said, is that the power grid won’t be able to support a fully electrified New York City.
“I hear from developers and owners who are very concerned about local grid issues in pockets of the city, including some who have said to me recently that they are going to have a hard time getting enough power for a project,” said Steinberg. But he said he also didn’t want to overstate the immediate distribution challenge. On the whole, he said, the grid in New York seems to have adequate capacity for most new projects.
In Boston, as the city prepares for the next phase of its efforts to green the city, Jemison said the city will be working closely with both sides — developers and climate advocates — to develop codes that hopefully work for everyone, while slashing emissions. But it’s not always possible to make everyone happy.
“These two groups of people are approaching this from very, very different circumstances,” he said. “I think with a little work, we’re going to find consensus — not 100 percent consensus … you have to admit that there’s going to be moments where people say, ‘You’ve obviously responded to a lot of my issues. Not all of them, but you’ve responded to a lot.’”