April 17, 2024

Under a new proposal, larger new buildings in Boston would be required to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions under city regulations essentially as soon as they open their doors.
The city and the Boston Planning and Development Agency put forward the proposal, known as the zero net carbon building zoning initiative, on Wednesday. Developers and consultants have been anticipating the proposal’s release for months.
The measure ups the ante in the city’s drive to cut emissions from the largest source of greenhouse gases in Boston — its buildings. Last year, the city passed an updated version of the Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance, or BERDO, that requires larger existing buildings to reach “net zero” by the year 2050 while hitting increasingly tough milestones in the meantime.
For new buildings still to be approved and constructed, there would be no such grace period. The proposal, if finalized, would apply to all types of buildings, including life sciences laboratories and hospitals. 
“This initiative ensures that large, new buildings in Boston donʼt come at the cost of our future,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said in a letter in a report accompanying the recommendations.
The proposal would apply to new buildings over 20,000 square feet or with at least 15 residential units. It would also change the city’s zoning to require the new buildings to be certifiable as LEED Gold, at minimum, a higher bar for sustainability than the city’s current requirement, LEED Certified.
Projects would be required to be built to minimize emissions “to the maximum extent feasible,” with performance targets that vary by building type. If they still fall short of net zero, they could produce renewable energy on-site through solar panels or other means, as well as buy renewable electricity, enter into a power purchase agreement or take a similar step to reduce net emissions.
If they’re still short of net zero, they would need to pay fines under the BERDO law, according to the proposal.
The proposal also calls on developers to minimize emissions from construction materials and activities under guidelines to come from the BPDA. However, the net zero requirement applies to the building’s operations, not its construction.
The net zero requirement would apply as soon as any part of a project that has received a temporary or final certificate of occupancy begins operation.
The BPDA is taking comments on the proposal through Oct. 28. The agency is hosting a virtual forum on the proposal on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
NAIOP Massachusetts, a trade group for the commercial real estate industry, is still reviewing the proposal, said Anastasia Nicolaou, its vice president of policy and public affairs. The group is looking to ensure the final regulation gives developers flexibility in how they achieve the emissions cuts, she said. Nicolaou was pleased to see the measure aligns in some respects with BERDO, something for which NAIOP had pushed in order to avoid a patchwork of regulation.
The proposal would achieve some of the same aims as a ban on natural-gas hookups in new buildings. The Wu administration is seeking to join a state pilot program enabling 10 Massachusetts cities and towns to ban the gas hookups, though it is still unclear whether it will be one of the municipalities chosen to do so. The state program exempts labs and health care facilities.
Electrifying buildings are seen by many as the best way to eventually reach net zero emissions under existing technology, though at this point fossil fuels are still responsible for much of the power coming from the grid.
“It really puts its thumb on the scale of these mechanisms to favor electrification in these buildings,” said Michael Walsh, a founding partner of the infrastructure research organization Groundwork Data, of the new proposal. “There’s a question on how developers will respond to that, the increased and more clearly specified requirements that are laid out.”
A BPDA spokesperson confirmed that under the proposal, all-electric buildings would not be considered net zero unless their landlords buy only energy generated without fossil fuels.
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