Thursday, July 18, 2024

Construction in Cambridge’s Kendall Square in December 2015. (Photo: Marc Levy)

An attempt to toughen rules cutting greenhouse gas emissions from big buildings lost 5-4 before the Cambridge City Council on Monday – “when it’s 60 degrees outside and pouring rain in December,” councillor Quinton Zondervan noted.

“It’s important that we do absolutely everything we can to address the crisis,” Zondervan said, referring to climate change.

Not enough councillors and city staff were convinced the change would make the difference Zondervan and other advocates hoped for, though. 

The proposed amendments to the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance that was passed by the City Council on June 26 would have added new large commercial and institutional buildings to the existing properties required to go net-zero by 2030. New construction should comply from the start rather than face expensive retrofits to comply with the law later, the argument went, and those buildings were still allowed to use carbon fuels for heating on the coldest days. It would regulate large labs, scientific research and medical facilities that are exempt from a “fossil fuel-free demonstration program” Cambridge has joined.

Advocates considered it closing a loophole. Councillor Dennis Carlone – like Zondervan, attending his final meeting in office after deciding not to run for reelection – said: “This is chicken feed compared to what’s already in Beudo, and we are allowing them to use fossil fuel for those five to eight days that they need it. I’ll be voting for the children.”

Without a change, construction could keep including fossil fuel infrastructure until 2050, something councillors wrestling with Beudo six months ago expected to be handled in a state energy “stretch code.” The council adopted the strictest version of the code this year.

Too much for too little

Councillors and city staff who were opposed said the amendments would be a big regulatory burden with little gained.

“We’re already going to be reducing 90 percent of the emissions from labs. I don’t know who else is doing that,” councillor Marc McGovern said. “I understand the urgency, I think we all do. But I’m still sitting here with the folks who are our experts for the city saying this isn’t the right time, and for various reasons.”

Beudo as adopted is one of the most aggressive emissions reduction ordinances in the country, but its adoption was recent and involved extensive discussion with stakeholders, assistant city manager Iram Farooq said, advising not to “change the regulation without additional conversations.”

“It does not feel like negotiating and process in good faith from our perspective, as the person who was helping to facilitate those conversations,” Farooq said. “We were negotiating with a certain set of understandings, and I think it will be really hard for us to go back. As a community, we might win a battle and lose the war, because this is not a one-one shot deal. We have to work with these very same people on sustainability initiatives that are much broader over time.”

Lacking good answers

The rules of the overlapping stretch code, fossil fuel-free demonstration program and Beudo are complicated, and the amendment “adds another layer of complexity” while threatening to add up to 15 percent to a building’s cost for energy infrastructure that might be used as little as 2 percent of the year, Farooq said.

Developers operating under the amendment could come to the city for recommendations and standards and come away frustrated, Farooq said, because “we would not have an answer.”

“We currently are not aware of fuels that we would be able to, as a department, feel comfortable recommending,” Farooq said.

The vote on the amendment was 5-4, with opposition that included McGovern, vice mayor Alanna Mallon and councillors Burhan Azeem, E. Denise Simmons and Paul Toner. The minority who hoped to see changes passed included Zondervan, Carlone, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and councillor Patty Nolan.  

During public comment, Kendall Square Association executive director Beth O’Neill Maloney, said the innovation industries she represents also “want the planet to be safe for our children and grandchildren,” but called the amendments unnecessary “because everyone is doing what they can to incorporate the technology to make buildings in Kendall and Cambridge generally as sustainable as possible.” The final portion of emissions covered by the amendments lacks solutions within easy reach – and may still not be in the six years covered by the legislation, she said.