Newton moves closer to building emissions reduction ordinance

Newton’s Climate and Sustainability team laid out a plan to the Zoning & Planning Committee Monday night for Newton to require all buildings of 20,000 square feet of gross floor space or more to report energy use and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan, which would cover both residential (but possibly exclude condominiums) and non-residential buildings, has been in the works for nearly two years and is a major piece in the city’s efforts to decrease its carbon footprint as part of the city’s Climate Action Plan.

What’s a BERDO?

BERDO is an acronym for Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance. It’s basically a locally imposed mandate for buildings to report energy use and emissions and also reduce emissions. Boston has a BERDO in place already. So does Cambridge.

While climate change is largely exacerbated by vehicles and transportation, it’s estimated that about a third of the state’s carbon emissions come from buildings.

What would it cover?

The city might make exceptions for state and federal buildings as well as residential condominium buildings.

There are 356 buildings in Newton that qualify to be covered by the BERDO mandate, with a total of 206 property owners, Ferguson said. Those buildings have a combined gross floor area of more than 22.7 million square feet and account for more than 16 percent of the total floor area in all the buildings in Newton.

“We’ve used Boston as a model,” Newton Sustainability Co-Director Bill Ferguson said.

Boston has had a BERDO since 2013.  Newton’s proposal has a few differences. For example, Newton’s BERDO would apply to individual buildings, while Boston measures BERDO by parcel.

Boston’s reporting mandate didn’t result in sufficient reduction in emissions, so Boston added an emissions standard to facilitate reduction in 2022.

How would Newton’s BERDO be enforced?

Once the reporting and reduction plan is implemented, it would be enforced by the Newton Law Department.

“There’ll be penalties for noncompliance, which is once again modeled after the Boston BERDO,” Ferguson said.

Penalties would start in the program’s third year for not filing reports, filing inaccurate reports and failure to meet emissions standards.

Penalties would not apply to residential tenants.

Fees collected would go into an Emissions Investment Fund administered by the Newton Climate/Sustainability Office and could then be used for a variety of related purposes including program administration costs, education and outreach and climate justice initiatives.

“We’ve been consulting with the Law Department throughout the development of the ordinance, and this is new territory,” Ferguson said. “There’s nothing [in existing law] that prevents it, but there’s nothing that specifically permits it.”

Ferguson added that since it’s unchartered territory legally, he expects the BERDO to be met with legal challenges by building owners. Such legal challenges would appear in Boston first, and those challenges would come before Newton implements its own ordinance, so Newton can learn from Boston’s legal challenges and possibly amend its own BERDO.

What’s next?

There are still some things that need to be cleared up before the ordinance can be approved. Should the city include electric emissions in its standard? Maryland, for example, does not.

And should Newton include residential condominiums in its BERDO? Cambridge’s BERDO includes residential buildings in its reporting mandate but not in its reduction mandate.

And is 20,000 square feet an appropriate threshold for residential buildings?

These questions and more will be considered as the final ordinance stakes shape.

The entire BERDO presentation is available on YouTube.

Newton’s city website also has a page with documentation showing how Newton’s BERDO was developed.