Boston City Council Looks to Reduce Carbon Footprint of City Hall and Municipal Buildings

By Beth Treffeisen

Boston City Council President Michelle Wu along with City Councilor Michael Flaherty filed a hearing order to reduce the carbon footprint of Boston City Hall and other municipal buildings on Wednesday, June 7.

This comes after President Donald Trump on June 1, announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, marking a retreat at the federal level from climate adaptation and mitigation progress.

Only two other countries, Syria and Nicaragua (only because the country believes it does not go far enough) are not part of the global agreement to reduce emissions and hold the world accountable:

In response, local and state governments across the country have expressed a commitment to carry on ambitious carbon reduction goals regardless of federal inaction.

Both Mayor Martin Walsh on behalf of the City of Boston and Governor Charles Baker on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have dedicated to continue to commit to reducing carbon admissions.

Mayor Walsh has already taken multiple steps to enhance Boston’s climate resiliency, including updating the goals of Boston’s Climate Readiness plan and other green initiatives.

Although a lot of these initiatives and goals require collaborations with the private sector and or changes in behavior from residents to reduce the City’s carbon footprint, a significant action entirely within city government’s control is the greening of Boston City Hall and other municipal buildings.

“If we’re going to push others to do something, we’re going to have to lead and set the example,” said City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley. “We are looking for ways we can be a model for them and for other cities and for the Commonwealth.”

There are multiple ways the City could reduce the carbon footprint at municipal buildings. City Council President Michelle Wu said that the recycling program has been defunct for quite some time and that can easily be remedied.

In order to better understand how, the City Council will ask for an examination of the maintenance and operations including energy efficiency in heating and cooling systems, water management, lighting and electricity usage, green roof programs, single-stream recycling and more.

“They are just things that we could implement and would have an impact but proves that we are looking at every single angle of this issue,” said Wu.

The climate adaptation and mitigation practices will not only contribute to the City of Boston’s climate readiness goals by reducing the City’s carbon footprint but would also save the City and taxpayers in maintenance and energy costs. In addition it would create a healthier work environment for city employees.

Wu said that the City already is in charge of its own energy procurement for its electricity for City Hall and other municipal buildings. Under the Eversource contract the City Council has the ability to vote on and switch the electricity that powers City Hall and other municipal buildings to be sourced on 100 percent renewable energy.

Wu said, this ability to procure electricity from renewable energy is similar to what she along with City Councilor Matt O’Maley are proposing to switch the entire City to with the default contract under the Community Choice Aggregation.

The Community Choice Aggregation is a program created by Massachusetts state law that allows cities and towns to use bulk purchasing power that gives municipalities the ability to require a higher percentage of renewable energy content than the state mandates from energy companies.

Councilor Michael Flaherty in 2008 introduced a similar hearing order on greening City Hall that had some important results, but has left some unfinished work.

“Some people here remember we had an administration that was somewhat cantankerous and they didn’t actually embrace new ideas,” said Flaherty.

He said last time they were able to get a few things through such as adding more plantings and trees to the Plaza and redoing the storm run-off of the building. But he said there is more that can be done.

It all started Flaherty said when he switched offices towards the Faneuil Hall side of the City Hall.

“I can vouch for my colleagues whose offices are over there – we actually have lights that when you shut the switch off the lights don’t go off,” said Flaherty. “My lights have been on over there for over ten years, as have my colleagues – it is really asinine.”

Wu said that she talked to former city employees and the environment department and no one could figure out exactly why the lights couldn’t be shut off.

Although some of the upgrades to the old buildings may initially be costly, Wu believes it will pay off in the long run.

“A lot of the beauty of the resiliency program is that a lot of the fixes end up saving you money,” said Wu. “Moving to solar power for example – often it can be a five year period but, you start to be banking on your own credits and you can sell it back to the market. Many of these initiatives are about finding cost efficacies along with helping the environment.”

At the City Council hearing, City Councilor Bill Linehan brought up the possibility that the City should sell City Hall because it is an old, energy inefficient building that is costing taxpayers money, and then build a new energy efficient building.

“City Hall needs to go,” said Linehan. “For ten years on this council I’ve indicated that this is one of the most inefficient buildings that there is and that it is representative of inefficiency and the inability to access.”

Linehan said that if they are seriously thinking about reducing the carbon footprint the City should consider selling this building and starting over with a net-zero energy building.

Wu disagrees; saying that she believes City Hall is beautiful and is one of the most striking examples of Brutalist architecture.

“I love City Hall and I hope it stays,” said Wu. “Boston has so many historic buildings anyway that we really need to demonstrate through this building that it is possible to preserve historic preservation and be fighting climate change at the same time.”

The matter was assigned jointly to the Committee on City, Neighborhood Services, and Veteran Affairs and to the Committee on Environment and Sustainability. A hearing date is yet to be set.