It’s 2050. My neighborhood bustles with families who have been living in the city for generations. We don’t own a car. We walk or bike on networks of protected lanes that crisscross the city. The air is clean and streets are quiet, even with electric rapid transit buses and trains, which are ubiquitous and on time. My 1880s house feels comfortable, even on drafty winter days. Dust is not a problem; soot doesn’t collect on my windowsills. I power my home with solar energy. Main streets, filled with people hanging out, are lined with shops, trees, and vegetation. At the height of summer, I no longer worry about air quality when I run. Welcome to my vision of a carbon-free Boston.
But I awake; it’s 2019. We have a long way to go before we achieve this sustainable future, a future where the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is reduced to zero by eliminating the use of carbon and offsetting remaining emissions.
Earlier this year, the Green Ribbon Commission released its “Carbon Free Boston” report containing a general set of recommendations to enable Boston to meet its carbon-neutral goal by 2050. The report outlines three key strategies to meet those goals: 1) electrify everything; 2) maximize efficiency in the building, transportation, and waste sectors; and 3) use clean, carbon-free energy for fuel.
Focused on Boston only, the report recommendations mirror other urban climate plans but do not fully address the methods, policies, and programs that will need to be put in place to make this transition happen. Two other companion reports, one on equity and one on the technical details of the report, will provide more information. Nevertheless, implicit in the report is a wholesale restructuring of our economy with equity as critical to the success of this transformation. So how do we get there?
The report focuses on buildings as one of the most important pieces in the transition to a carbon-free Boston. Buildings account for more than two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions, with pre-2018 buildings accounting for 93 percent of those emissions by 2050 if we continue business as usual. To transform Boston’s 86,000 buildings (80,000 residential, 6,000 commercial), deep energy retrofits coupled with electrification will be needed; the report notes that’s approximately 2,000–3,000 renovations every year. That’s a lot of retrofits in very old buildings.
To accomplish this in design and construction is no easy task. It’s an industry that historically has been slow to change and is largely fragmented, composed of hundreds of thousands of players—small and large contractors, designers, engineers, building operators, vendors, and product manufacturers, among others.
As new policies and programs, both carrots and sticks, are put in place, the commercial and large multifamily sector, supported by an established design and construction market, will follow suit, despite initial resistance, and meet the new challenges. However, successfully transitioning the small multifamily and single-family residential market will require significant intervention. Composed of a lot of small buildings owned by one or more people, this market accounts for half of the floor space and one-third of greenhouse-gas emissions in Boston. Who pays for these retrofits? Who designs and builds them? How do we address the significant knowledge gap in the market? How do we engage effectively with the owners of these units? Most important, how do we avoid leaving those with limited resources behind in a heated housing market, in an economy where the gap between the haves and have-nots is expanding, and where segregation continues to vex the city?
Education and training: We need a trained labor force, and it needs to be done quickly and equitably—no easy task. Affordable and accessible training across the industry (among compliance officers, design professionals, builders, and owners) is crucial. This is particularly important for contractors in the residential sector—an important entry point into the labor market for immigrants and individuals without college degrees. In 2012, France adopted higher performance requirements for residential buildings and invested in a national training program to educate the marketplace. In 2018, it announced additional resources for training the industry to speed the transition. The benefit of coupling building-performance requirements with training programs is that the initial outlay of resources may be high, but the return on investment is also high. Much of the training in this space happens in the offices of design and engineering firms, and in the construction field; as the industry gains knowledge and transitions to designing and building differently, that expertise will be passed on to future generations.
Training a new generation of workers will also be important. Environmental workforce readiness programs, such as the 10-module, multimedia, activity-based curriculum Roots of Success, should be integrated in schools, job training, and youth programs to target low-income communities. Technical arts programs, which often integrate construction trades, can teach how to build higher performance buildings. Community colleges, universities, and cities can collaborate to develop educational programs around knowledge gaps.
Support programs targeted toward homeowners will be critical. As part of a larger comprehensive set of policies and programs, France developed the Points Renovation Info Service, a network of public and independent advice centers, as a single point of contact for homeowners; it offers free technical, financial, fiscal, and regulatory information, and simplifies access to information, resources, and support.
Cost: To do any of this successfully and equitably, we will need significant resources. Deep energy retrofits are expensive and affect the whole building, including windows; walls; roofs; and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. In Boston’s heated housing market, that poses immense challenges. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, 28 percent of metropolitan Boston homeowners are cost burdened and 12 percent are severely cost burdened; for renters, the figures are 48.8 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively. Tax breaks, significant subsidies, and, for many, outright grants will be necessary to maintain a stable market. Any policies, such as those tied to rent or sale of a property, will need to address this challenge.
One of the key benefits of transitioning to a carbon-free Boston is that it will save us all money. Although existing programs, policies, and incentives support energy-efficient improvements, they are simply not enough, especially in older homes where structural, health, and safety issues are often critical priorities before energy efficiency can be addressed. Retrofitting these structures will require more resources than what is currently allocated to energy efficiency. These costs will fall on the owners of these homes unless creative solutions are identified.
To source significant additional resources, we will need to leverage the other benefits of carbon neutrality. For example, improved health outcomes can become a basis for innovative partnerships among the financial, utility, insurance, biomedical, and healthcare industries to provide financial resources to owners and address the problem equitably and holistically. A pilot program in Vermont targets low-income households with high hospitalization rates for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Doctors prescribe home assessments and home-improvement funding. Because many of the strategies that support health also support energy efficiency, families end up with lower energy homes and reduced emergency hospitalizations. In Chicago, a similar program emerged out of a foreclosure prevention program.
Developing programs such as these can enable private investment while integrating energy efficiency, renewable energy, and public health in low- and moderate-income communities. Can they also help support those who are struggling but do not fall within the traditional definition of low- and moderate-income households?
Scaling up: Along with new sources of funding, collaboration among various industries in Greater Boston should be developed, with an eye toward identifying innovative relationships and opportunities.
Kalundborg, Denmark, is a model for industrial symbiosis and was recently awarded the Win Win Gothenburg Sustainability Award. Multiple public and private entities in Kalundborg transform their industrial waste, approximately 25 streams and expanding, to become resources for others. A treated byproduct from a pharmaceutical company becomes a fertilizer for farmers, waste heat from industrial production is integrated into the local utility and pumped into a district heat system for the residential community, waste ethanol becomes biogas for the local utility. Michael Hallgren, production director at Novo Nordisk, one of the players in the symbiosis, says, “The partnership is based on common sense and cooperation, as well as comprehensive trust between the partners. The partners trust that they can share challenges with each other and find shared solutions that create value for all parties involved.” Here, the success of the whole is more important than the success of the individual.
The city’s relationship with the region must be acknowledged holistically so that synergies with neighboring communities can be identified and leveraged. Boston and its neighboring cities may be the economic engines of the area, but their benefits cannot remain concentrated within them. For residents who have moved farther and farther from Boston because they have been priced out of the housing market, a carbon-free city may exacerbate the inequity that already exists for those in less affluent communities. This includes low- and moderate-income as well as middle-class households. Is there a give-and-take that can exist between the city and the larger region?
If we can develop an economy that is both regenerative and restorative, where transportation, energy, food, material, forest, and waste networks can operate synergistically within a larger framework of interconnected systems, change can start to take hold. Once the benefits begin to stack up, we might just create a mutually supportive, equitable, and carbon-free region.