Saturday, July 20, 2024

A North Cambridge construction site seen Oct. 20. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Large commercial buildings must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, with earlier deadlines for commercial properties greater than 100,000 square feet, Cambridge’s City Council voted Monday – a long-awaited follow-up to an Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance passed in 2014 that required property owners of large buildings to record and disclose their energy use. Beudo has become Beudero, or the Building Energy Use Disclosure Emissions Reduction Ordinance.

Enacting the night’s amendments completes the third and final phase of a Cambridge Green New Deal proposed by by councillor Quinton Zondervan; the first two phases, passed in March, require developers of large new non-residential buildings to calculate their project emissions, including from construction activities and building materials, and the City of Cambridge to provide free access to green-jobs training programs for low-income Cambridge residents.

Beudero represents the culmination of years of effort by climate activists and legislators, albeit with compromises. The councillors acknowledged its limitations Monday but considered it cause for celebration nonetheless.

“It had some fits and starts, and it may not be 100 percent of what everybody wants on either side of the issue. But it’s significant,” councillor Marc McGovern said.

This climate legislation comes at a time the effects of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly evident around the world.

“As we are taking these votes tonight, a heat wave in Texas is shattering all records. Two tropical storms are forming earlier than ever before in the Atlantic Ocean because the water is so hot. And of course, we already talked about the forest fire smoke earlier this evening,” Zondervan said, referring to a public health update on air quality after Canadian wildfires.

Seen as a model

Though the legislative power of Cambridge’s council does not extend past the city limits, its climate policy can have an effect far beyond them, councillor Patty Nolan said. She called Beudero a major, nearly unprecedented piece of climate legislation that will prevent hundreds of thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and can serve as a model for communities across the globe.

“If there’s any hope for the world – and I refuse to give up on hope for the world – Cambridge has got to be there,” Nolan said.

Buildings in Cambridge make up a startling 80 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, Nolan said – nearly double the proportion nationwide – and the problem has persisted despite efforts to move developers toward net zero.

Beudo was introduced for nearly a decade ago, in 2014, to require transparency from owners of large buildings around their greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. A revisit was expected in 2018, but there was a delay of several years due to “missteps that the council and the city took,” Nolan said.

Now on a clear path toward implementation, the ordinance makes Cambridge one of just a few cities across the United States with legislation enforcing net-zero buildings emissions policies – though one that relies on power infrastructure that doesn’t yet exist.

Property owner concerns

Some property owners also doubt the feasibility and worry about expensive retrofits that could force them out of the city.

“Not only will they not do anything to help the environment, or resolve any greenhouse gas issues, they simply are unworkable. Eversource hasn’t been at the table. Most property owners haven’t been at the table,” developer and business owner Patrick Barrett said during a public comment period. “You’re just going to pass something that we can’t comply with.”

The council has called for the city to offer support for facilities struggling to meet the standards. In cases of hardship, including financial distress or difficulties securing grid electrical service, property owners may apply for temporarily loosened emissions regulations, though they’d be expected to produce a detailed plan to decrease their emissions.

Certain facilities were particularly likely to face difficulties meeting emissions standards, such as hospitals and houses of worship, some councillors said, proposing to note the issues in the ordinance without providing automatic exemptions. The amendment failed narrowly due to concerns it would create loopholes or discourage property owners from trying to meet the emissions standards.

Tighter timeline proposed

Also considered was an amendment to tighten the timeline for new buildings to reach net zero. Zondervan pushed to advance the deadline to 2030 from 2050 – a requirement he and other activists have petitioned for since 2013, before the introduction of Beudo in its original form.

In addition to reducing emissions, he argued, it will be financially beneficial for property owners in the long run because it’s easier to build for net-zero emissions than to renovate to meet the standards later.

There were qualms. Vice mayor Alanna Mallon and councillor Burhan Azeem noted the lack of time to consider potential issues at the Monday meeting – one of more than six hours before the council breaks in July and August. Iram Farooq, assistant city manager for community development, described it as a “much heavier hit on the small- and midsize non-residential buildings,” which faced a greater acceleration of the timeline.

The council voted to forward the amendment to the Ordinance Committee for discussion.

The passage of the Beudero amendments was still cause for celebration, Zondervan said.

“This is a big moment for Cambridge. After two decades of discussion and debate on what to do about climate change, we’re finally taking ownership of our biggest source of climate pollution: commercial buildings,” he said.