What is a zero emissions building?

Zero emissions buildings are energy-efficient buildings with all-electric appliances which are powered by on-site or off-site non-emitting, renewable energy sources.

Constructing new zero emissions buildings and retrofitting existing buildings to zero emissions or net-zero emissions standards reduces greenhouse gas emissions, increases comfort and air quality, and avoids costly future retrofits. Energy efficient buildings with well-insulated exterior envelopes have lower operating costs.

What are the Health and Safety Benefits of Zero Emissions Buildings?

Air Quality: Buildings whose energy comes from fossil fuels are a significant contributor to Massachusetts’s greenhouse gas emissions and poor air quality. A growing body of evidence indicates that all-electric buildings have better indoor and outdoor air quality.

  • In Massachusetts, buildings powered by fossil fuels contribute five times more outdoor nitrogen oxides (a precursor to smog) than electricity generation. Outdoor air pollution is associated with increased rates of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cardiovascular disease. 
  • Cooking with gas stoves contributes to household air pollution. Children living in homes with gas cooking stoves have a 42% higher risk of current asthma. Gas cooking stoves are the most common asthma trigger in Massachusetts. A longitudinal study in Massachusetts showed that children with asthma had more severe and frequent asthma symptoms if they lived in homes with gas cooking stoves. 

Environmental Justice: Asthma is a public health challenge in Boston. Air pollution is a driver of health disparities in asthma; by reducing air pollution in buildings, Boston will also be addressing one of its most pressing public health problems.

Safety: All-electric, net-zero-carbon buildings are safer than those whose energy is supplied by gas. Gas appliances emit carbon monoxide, an odorless gas than can cause death at high levels. Gas is flammable and explosive. As Massachusetts witnessed, gas can be very dangerous. Explosions in 2018 in the Merrimack Valley displaced 30,000 people and killed a teenage boy as a result of an over-pressurized gas pipeline.

Climate Emergency Health Impacts: Over 100 public health and health organizations and the City of Boston have stated that climate change is a health emergency. Climate change is affecting our health in many ways: from more heat-related emergency room visits, vector-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease, to an increase in respiratory illnesses. Building all-electric buildings will help reach Massachusetts’s climate mitigation goals as outlined in the Global Warming Solutions Act and will have important public health benefits for Boston residents.

Resiliency: Highly efficient buildings are more resilient in extreme weather and can allow people to shelter in place for longer periods of time. They are also less expensive to operate. 

Why is Boston Committed to Building and Updating Current Buildings to have zero emissions in the future?

More than 70% of Boston’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from energy use in buildings, including the electricity produced by non-renewable sources, heating oil, and natural gas.  Commercial, industrial, and large residential buildings account for 60% GHG emissions.

Decarbonizing Boston’s building sector depends on shifting to zero emissions new construction now and retrofitting and electrifying at least 80% of our existing buildings over the next 30 years.

How is Boston promoting zero emissions standards?

In 2016, Mayor Walsh signed the Metro Boston Climate Mitigation Commitment, pledging to make Boston carbon neutral by 2050. He tasked the Green Ribbon Commission with identifying viable pathways for reaching the City’s goals. The Green Ribbon Commission collaborated with the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University to research and develop pathways to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The work was presented in the Carbon Free Boston report in November 2019. The report stated that to reach the carbon neutrality goals by 2050, all new buildings in Boston would have to be highly efficient, all-electric and powered by clean energy and that existing buildings would have to be retrofitted to meet those standards. 

In 2019, the Boston Climate Action Plan  was updated and outlined 18 strategies for reaching the City’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal. Seven of the strategies are aimed at improving efficiency in buildings and moving to a net-zero carbon, all-electric standard:

  • Construct new municipal buildings to a zero net carbon standard
  • Adopt a zero net carbon standard for City-funded affordable housing
  • Strengthen green building zoning requirements to a zero net carbon standard
  • Invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy generation in municipal buildings
  • Develop a carbon emissions performance standard to decarbonize existing large buildings
  • Expand workforce development programs for building decarbonization
  • Advocate for state building policies that align with carbon neutrality by 2050

In 2020, Boston took steps toward implementing these strategies. 

What are the Key Principles of Reaching Boston 2050 Carbon Neutrality Goals for Buildings?

Energy efficiency is the cornerstone of any plan to produce carbon-neutral buildings.

Then comes electrification. (Climate Free Boston p. 12)

Maximize Efficiency: A carbon-neutral city minimizes the demand for energy. Every building is a high-performance building.

Electrify Activity: A carbon-neutral city converts systems that currently run on fossil fuels, furnaces, and stovetops, to use electricity instead. Heating systems are converted to heat pumps and electric boilers where feasible.

Run on Clean Energy: A carbon-neutral city purchases electricity that is 100 percent GHG-free, and it fully utilizes the potential for in-city renewable generation, such as rooftop solar. Sustainably sourced renewable fuels are used in highly efficient district energy systems, emergency backup energy systems, and heavy-duty vehicles.

How can we ensure equity in the transition to zero emissions standards?

Climate action in Boston has two guiding principles for equity:

  • No disproportionate impacts
  • Benefits from climate mitigation and preparedness efforts are equally shared (Climate Action Report)

The Carbon Free Boston report created the Social Equity Scorecard to be used when considering actions and policies. (Carbon Free Boston, p. 23)

What can the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council do to promote zero emissions standards?

Climate change and responsive policies will likely place significant challenges on communities in the 2020-2050 timeframe.  It is important that new construction, renovations, and home improvement projects are resilient to these changes. Proposed projects should consider the environmental impact and increasing energy costs and code requirements that are anticipated due to the need to fight climate change. Buildings that fail to respond to the regulatory, environmental and economic needs of the future are at risk of rapidly depreciating and becoming expensive properties to operate and occupy – this will be detrimental to projects, future building occupants, the neighborhood, and the City. The JPNC can promote zero emissions standards in their review process.

References

Boston Climate Action Plan 2019 Update

Interactive Summary – Story Map Summary of the Boston Climate Action Plan 2019 Update

Carbon Free Boston Summary Report