Rick Dimino

Rick Dimino

Addressing the impacts of climate change will require a serious commitment from all levels of government throughout the world, but the action plans for metropolitan Boston must be homegrown. If we want to see greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions decline, this region must take an active role to do its part.  

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s vision is ambitious; in 2017 he set the goal for the city of Boston to be carbon-neutral by 2050. His plan, called Carbon Free Boston, will largely depend on the actions and potential solutions in four key sectors: buildings, transportation, electric power and waste. Preliminary findings show that buildings will play a significant role if Boston is going to be successful in reaching this ambitious goal. Therefore, dramatic changes are needed for institutional, commercial, industrial and residential buildings alike. 

Carbon Free Boston is a project between the city of Boston, the Green Ribbon Commission and Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. It is studying the four sectors mentioned above that have been determined to be the largest GHG emitters in Boston. The final report of this work is expected this fall. It is already becoming clear that there are many difficult decisions ahead for state and city government, as well as the private sector and residents throughout Massachusetts.  

Early findings show that Boston’s buildings account for a shocking 75 percent of the city’s GHG emissions. This may be a slight surprise, as our economy does not rely on industrial production facilities and the skyline is free from the classic images of pollution such as coal plants and giant smoke stacks.  

Can Boston significantly reduce the output of GHG emissions from buildings? It will involve significant energy retrofits and net-zero energy building construction – but a one-size-fits-all approach will not work here, as there is such a diverse range of uses, sizes and ages in our current buildings and economy.  


Existing Buildings Are the Real Challenge 

Carbon Free Boston has exposed a hard truth: the energy efficiency potential from new buildings will not be enough to balance out the negative impacts of our existing buildings. New projects like the GE headquarters in Fort Point or the LEED Platinum status achieved at 101 Seaport are models for all future construction, but the new projects are not the problem. We can expect that 85 percent of Boston buildings in 2050 are already here today. How we improve their energy use is essential to our future emission goals.  

The largest real estate owners in the city of Boston recently met to discuss Carbon Free Boston’s initial findings and potential solutions. This group, called the “First Movers,” includes city buildings, hospitals, higher education institutions and privately-owned facilities. In aggregate, these property owners are responsible for almost half of Boston’s GHG emissions from buildings and make up a natural group to discuss policy and technology options, best practices, data and find areas for partnerships, such as joint power-purchase agreements. It is encouraging that this group shares Walsh’s goals and is taking action. 

In addition to energy efficiency, other strategies to reach carbon neutrality in buildings include a strong shift to renewables, including renewable power purchase agreements and requirements for solar energy systems on rooftops, incentives for residential window and HVAC upgrades and continued reporting requirements through the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance. Systemwide strategies will also be needed, such as grid modernization, district energy applications and energy storage deployment. 

The coastline, economy and quality of life in Massachusetts are already at risk today and in the near future because of the impacts of climate change. Carbon reductions now through 2050 will help in reducing climate impact. Carbon Ready Boston has defined the climate impacts, the city’s vulnerabilities and has started to outline key resiliency strategies. Becoming carbon-neutral and implementing climate resiliency strategies need to be part of any policy design and construction initiative related to infrastructure and building development. It is our new reality.     

Rick Dimino is president and CEO of A Better City.

Finding Solutions to Boston’s Carbon Emissions Challenge

by Rick Dimino time to read: 3 min