Boston’s Mayor Wants To Adopt Climate-Friendly Building Code

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Boston Mayor Michelle Wu wants the City to adopt a green building code that will strengthen energy efficiency requirements for new construction. Fossil fuels burned for heat and appliances in buildings account for nearly a third of emissions in Massachusetts; in Boston, 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the building sector. The impacts of these emissions contribute to global climate change and local air pollution that disproportionately impacts low-income residents and communities of color in Boston.

building code
Graphic courtesy of Mayor Michelle Wu’s office

Mayor Wu says she is working to adopt a new climate-friendly state building code that would strongly discourage the use of fossil fuels in new construction in Boston. The updated energy code will deliver the long-term benefits of improved air quality, lower energy costs, reduced carbon emissions, and enhanced thermal comfort to residents. Research shows there is little-to-no cost increase for building efficient and fossil fuel-free multifamily housing.

Passage would make Boston by far the largest city in the state to implement the code since it was finalized by the state energy department late last year as an option for communities looking to take action toward reducing GHG emissions. The specialized code stops short of completely banning the use of fossil fuels in new buildings but adds costly stipulations for developers wanting to install gas connections.

A Green New Deal for Boston: A Sustainable Building Code

“Building a Green New Deal city means improving on our existing infrastructure as well as investing in future resilient development,” said Mayor Wu. “This new green building code will help ensure that we set the foundation for healthy, resilient growth throughout our neighborhoods.”

According to a March, 2023 press release, Mayor Wu will file an ordinance with the Boston City Council to adopt the State Department of Energy Resources’ Municipal Opt-in Specialized Stretch Energy Code, a transformative green update that will further reduce climate-polluting emissions in buildings in municipalities that have adopted the code across the state. The state requires municipalities looking to adopt the code to seek the approval of legislative bodies like town meetings or city councils. Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara, who chairs the housing and environmental justice committees, said she was confident her colleagues on the council would approve it.

The Specialized Stretch Code was created along with an updated Stretch Energy Code in December, 2022. The stretch energy code applies to nearly 300 green communities in Massachusetts, including Boston, and sets energy efficiency requirements for new construction and major renovations.

The new, updated building code requires energy conservation measures to reduce heating and cooling demand. It creates a strong standard to ensure buildings are more resilient to power outages while enabling efficiency, electrification, and affordability.

Additionally, Mayor Wu announced the new Large Building Green Energy Retrofits Program administered by the Mayor’s Office of Housing, a grant program supported by $10 million of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to be used to foster energy performance improvements for affordable housing developments to help multifamily buildings become more energy efficient.

“What is abundantly clear is that all of our challenges and opportunities are interrelated,” she said. “Making our buildings more energy efficient doesn’t just help us preserve our planet. It also improves indoor air quality, lowers operating costs, and reduces the energy costs burden for residents so that all of our housing is more affordable.”

The $10 million for affordable, multifamily buildings is meant to fund insulation and other energy-saving measures in existing buildings. Additional future funding will be needed to update Boston’s old, inefficient buildings. “The focus there is really to build a market for deep energy retrofits and to learn what it takes to do this kind of work that is so critical to reducing emissions,” said Oliver Sellers-Garcia, the city’s Green New Deal director. It will also allow Boston to create a model that it could scale up as more state and federal funds become available.

Why is Building Decarbonization So Important?

Architecture 2030 offers some illuminating statistics about the importance of decarbonizing buildings.

  • The built environment generates 40% of annual global CO2 emissions.
  • Of those total emissions, building operations are responsible for 27% annually, while building and infrastructure materials and construction (typically referred to as “embodied carbon”) are responsible for an additional 13% annually.
  • In 2040 approximately 2/3 of the global building stock will be buildings that exist today.
  • Without widespread existing building decarbonization across the globe, these buildings will still be emitting CO2 emissions in 2040, and we will not achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.
  • Achieving zero emissions from the existing building stock will require leveraging building intervention points to accelerate the rate of energy upgrades (increasing energy efficiency, eliminating on-site fossil fuels, and generating and/or procuring 100% renewable energy).
  • Global building floor area is expected to double by 2060.
  • To accommodate the largest wave of urban growth in human history, we expect to add 2.4 trillion ft2 (230 billion m2) of new floor area to the global building stock, the equivalent of adding an entire New York City to the world, every month, for 40 years.
  • Achieving zero emissions from new construction will require energy efficient buildings that use no on-site fossil fuels and are 100% powered by on- and/or off-site renewable energy.

Calls for Mayor Wu to Push Boston’s Green New Deal Even Farther

A Boston Globe editorial has drawn attention to the similarities among Wu and other left-leaning female mayors globally, from Anne Hidalgo of Paris, to Claudia Lopez of Bogota, Mónica Fein of Rosario, Argentina, and Célestine Ketcha Courtès of Bangangté, Cameroon. These mayors have been clear that climate change will deepen the divisions already found in society, and they have been aggressive in pushing for a new green economic model rooted in justice and sustainability to tackle the climate emergency. With the global mayoral comparison comes a prod for Wu to do more to prepare Boston for the long-term impacts of climate change by focusing on heat, flooding, and social vulnerability.

If major global challenges — climate change, the economy, inequality — will be solved in cities, as so many claim, then Wu’s 2020 Planning for a Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery campaign proposal commitment to climate justice and a suite of policies is imperative. “Cities have tremendous power to lead the charge to mitigate the threat of climate change,eliminate the violence of poverty and economic inequality, close the racial wealth gap, and dismantle structural racism,” she argued. She described how Boston is looking at a future with as many as 40 days of intense heat per year by 2030 and nearly
the entire summer by 2070. Sea level rise could reach over 3 feet by 2070 and over 7 feet by the end of the century.

“Above all,” she stated then, “we must recognize this moment in time as a call to action.”

Boston’s pending green building code is an important element of many challenges that Wu will need to solve for Boston’s Green New Deal to accomplish a truly just recovery.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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