To save our climate, start with our buildings
The year is 2050. Sea levels have risen a foot and a half in Boston. Cod have left the Cape altogether. We hardly see snow anymore; the winter space-saver wars are over, but so are snowball fights and ski slopes. One-hundred-degree days have become a regular occurrence. By 2100, Boston’s neighborhoods are forever changed, as 30 percent of our city slips under water, while drinking water is contaminated by rising seas.
This isn’t a dystopian disaster movie; this is the future of our city. Unless we act — now.
The 2018 United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned us that we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to a net of zero — only emitting as much carbon dioxide and other GHGs into the atmosphere as our trees and other carbon sinks can take in. That warning gave us only 12 years to get started in order to prevent the first major and permanent consequences: the destruction of the world’s coral reefs and the desolation of low-lying islands. That’s 11 years from today, and nine years from when a new president could take office.
We cannot wait for a dithering federal government. Creating a net-zero emissions future and preventing irreversible damage is up to cities and states. Local leadership must show the rest of the world that America is still in for the fight against climate change. The recent Carbon Free Boston report shows us we can start becoming a net-zero city with Boston’s most tangible asset: our buildings.
Two-thirds of Boston’s carbon emissions come from our 86,000 buildings; reducing these emissions is crucial to make Boston a greener, more sustainable city. Net-zero carbon buildings use less energy and generate renewable power through solar panels on the roof or other renewables on- or off-site. As chairman of the Boston City Council’s Committee on Environment, Sustainability, and Parks, I have put net-zero carbon on Boston’s environmental agenda with proposals to incentivize sustainable construction in the zoning code and allow additional density for net-zero projects.
Implementing net-zero standards can start with municipal structures, expand to large and then small new development, and conclude with retrofits of existing buildings. Tackling building emissions could reduce Boston’s climate impact by 3.7 megatons of carbon per year, half of Boston’s total emissions and over twice the impact of any other strategy available to the city. We don’t need to wait for Congress to debate a Green New Deal. We can start investing in our sustainable future — right now.
Boston must act soon to give the construction cycle time to react to what our climate demands. We can join other cities leading this fight; in April, New York City’s city council voted on legislation to set emissions caps on buildings over 25,000 square feet and reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
Any change to our climate policy must account for equity and affordability in our city. We cannot make Boston even more prohibitively expensive or we will drive growth to the suburbs, where lower-density living leads to higher emissions per person. But net-zero carbon can pay for itself, generating a profit within seven to 10 years by generating renewable energy and subsequent savings; it shows that every fiscal conservative should be an environmentalist.
Boston Medical Center’s net-zero carbon renovations save $25 million a year. Lexington’s Hastings Elementary School generates 200,000 more kilowatt-hours of solar energy than it needs, turning a profit for the municipality. Boston could invest such funds in retrofitting our affordable housing stock and helping residents fund net-zero home improvements. The startup costs to build a climate-ready future don’t just generate savings but are also essential and equitable investments.
If we reach a carbon-free Boston and inspire others to join us, we can control the future of our city. Net-zero carbon is a bold and promising plan that can begin to address our climate crisis and provide green jobs to the next generation of Bostonians. Boston has always been a “city upon a hill,” but our hill is not high enough to avoid the flood. Instead of retreating to higher ground, let’s become a beacon of net-zero sustainability for the world, and show every city how to respond to climate change.
Matt O’Malley is a Boston city councilor.