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Cambridge City Council Passes Green New Deal Policy Limiting Emissions from Large Buildings

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The Cambridge City Council passed the final component of the Green New Deal for Cambridge Monday, concluding a yearslong effort to enact a package of environmental policies long championed by progressive legislators and activists in the city.

Eight of the nine councilors voted to pass an amendment to the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance that requires large buildings to reduce their emissions to net-zero by 2035 or pay a compliance fee, making Cambridge the first known city in the U.S. to do so. One councilor, E. Denise Simmons, voted present.

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The amendment was the third and final piece of the Cambridge Green New Deal to pass. The Council approved the plan’s two other components — an ordinance establishing training programs for green jobs and a zoning petition introducing new emissions accounting requirements — in March 2023.

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BEUDO, first passed in 2014, requires commercial properties of more than 25,000 square feet and residential properties with more than 50 units to report their energy and water usage.

Now, non-residential buildings larger than 100,000 square feet must start showing signs of emission reductions by the end of 2028 and achieve net-zero emissions within seven years after that. Smaller non-residential buildings will have until 2050 to transition. Building owners will be fined $234 per metric ton of excess emissions after the deadlines pass.

Monday’s amendment aims in part to bring about significant changes to MIT- and Harvard-owned properties, as the universities are the first and second largest contributors to Cambridge emissions, respectively, according to BEUDO data.

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“The original BEUDO ordinance was really just a reporting requirement,” Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 said. “This is clearly more than reporting — we are setting targets and folks are held accountable.”

City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan said the amendment was “groundbreaking.”

“It’s the first legislation that I’m aware of, in the country, that requires net zero by 2035,” he said.

In 2021, an initial BEUDO amendment proposal set the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This year, the Council voted to shift the target year to 2035 instead of 2050.

“I think there is a lot of urgency to look at some of our major sources of emissions and how we can encourage building owners and the city to play a role in supporting them to find carbon reduction,” Huang said.

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Energy use in buildings accounts for 80 percent of emissions in Cambridge, according to the city. Cambridge has records of annual energy and water usage from 70 percent of buildings that fall under BEUDO from 2015 through 2021.

According to the dataset, Harvard-owned property accounts for approximately 12.4 percent of total carbon emissions reported under BEUDO to the city in 2021. MIT-owned property makes up another 26.4 percent of emissions.

In June 2022, Harvard and MIT students penned an open letter urging both schools to eliminate their carbon emissions rather than using global carbon offsets to reduce emissions and avoid compliance fees.

City Councilor Patricia M. Nolan ’80 said that while some faculty from Harvard and MIT supported the amendment, there was pushback from the schools themselves.

“They did not want to be made to do this,” Nolan said.

“There’s grand pronouncements about how Harvard’s a great climate leader,” she added. “But that doesn’t mean that they wanted to be forced into doing something, which is what we were doing.”

Zondervan said that there were half a dozen private meetings and another half a dozen public hearings with university representatives present. At the ordinance committee hearing on Jun. 22, 2022, Harvard and MIT representatives “spoke at length about their concerns,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

Harvard has “longstanding, bold, aggressive sustainability goals for our campus,” Harvard spokesperson Amy Kamosa wrote in an emailed statement.

“We share this vision for a fossil fuel-free future with the City of Cambridge, and remain committed to advancing climate research and to accelerating action for a sustainable future not just for our campus or for the region, but also for the world,” Kamosa wrote.

Huang said he is aware that Harvard, MIT, and large biotech firms have established climate strategies and goals. However, he also acknowledges the need for city regulation in achieving said climate goals.

“I am sensitive to the fact that there’s additional regulatory burden,” Huang said.

“But I think there’s a role for the city to say, ‘We all kind of need to be in this together,’” he added.

The ordinance also requires the creation of a review board to monitor the use of carbon credits to offset emissions.

“We worked with activists to ensure that there’s very strict requirements on which carbon credits can be used,” Zondervan said.

The city will also launch a $2 million technical assistance fund “to support building owners, especially the smaller ones” on the path to decarbonization, according to Huang.

BEUDO and its amendments are “the culmination of a decade’s worth of work” by several activist groups, including the Sunrise Movement and Green Cambridge, Nolan said.

“It’s a pretty amazing piece of legislation. Now we have to make it work,” she added.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at michelle.amponsah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Julian J. Giordano can be reached at julian.giordano@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jjgiordano1.

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