Net Zero: Right Goal, Wrong Approach

Have feedback? Feel free to leave it in the comments below. Also, we encourage you to visit the Cambridge Civic Journal and participate in the conversation in the ongoing conversation about our statement on the net zero zoning petition.

The members of A Better Cambridge thank the proponents of the Connolly Net Zero Petition for provoking such an important discussion about climate change adaptation in Cambridge. The Connolly Petition has challenged our community to take a serious look at how we will eliminate consumption of fossil fuels and promote alternative energy use across the city of Cambridge.

A better Cambridge is a net zero Cambridge. Eliminating carbon emissions should be a primary goal in Cambridge. We believe that a viable approach to serious energy efficiency in Cambridge relies on a multi-pronged strategy that addresses what we require of new development and how we adapt existing buildings, with a focus on multi-modal transportation throughout. A key achievement will be that carbon emissions are reduced within our city through construction of better and more efficient buildings, without at the same time exporting emissions to communities outside of our borders.

While taking this serious and long-overdue look at building efficiency in Cambridge we can’t also lose sight of important community development challenges facing our city. The cost of rent continues to rise in Cambridge, and condos here are being sold for hugely inflated prices. Promoting the development of more mixed residential and commercial buildings around Cambridge’s existing transportation hubs is a key strategy in our ability to make housing more affordable for all people in Cambridge. We have serious concerns that the Connolly Petition’s narrow focus on large scale new development will hurt our ability to create the new affordable low- and middle-income housing that is now so desperately needed to keep Cambridge a diverse and sustainable community.

When it comes to housing, most research and practice-based evidence into the feasibility of cost-effective net zero housing applies to low-density, single-family homes in moderate climates like California. This is not the type of new housing we should expect or hope for in Cambridge, and there is insufficient evidence to make any conclusions about the feasibility of developing net zero multifamily housing here. This places at risk the viability of important projects like housing at the Sullivan Courthouse, for which residents of East Cambridge have been fighting. If the Cambridge Housing Authority development currently planned for Temple Street were subject to the requirements of the Connolly Petition, it almost certainly would not go forward.

In a 2012 study “Think Bigger: Net-Zero Communities” the authors, who represent the Alliance to Save Energy, the Urban Land Institute, and the U.S. Department of Energy, effectively argue that “achieving net-zero energy across an entire building stock requires looking beyond individual buildings and considering net-zero at a community scale.” They state that:

it might not be feasible to achieve net zero energy in every building – this might be more realistic for buildings evaluated together; Multi-building systems offer opportunities for lower energy use through heat sharing and load diversity; and
drawing a larger perimeter around multiple buildings and adjacent open space allows us to consider “nearby” renewable energy sources thus keeping buildings and urban densities in the net zero mix.

As the study goes on to explain, we need an approach to net-zero that allows for the diversity of building types, uses, and climates and also one that will not dilute urban density in favor of low-rise sprawl. We believe these points are wholly missed in the Connolly Petition’s approach to net zero.

Focusing only on new development, even of substantial square footage, will seriously limit the impact of the Connolly Petition. New construction is small compared to our existing building stock, and anything built after 2010 must comply with Cambridge’s stretch code — energy efficiency standards that are among the toughest in the nation, which have effectively increased the stock of highly energy efficient commercial, residential and institutional buildings in Cambridge without negatively impacting our progress towards key social goods like affordable, multi-family housing.

It would be important to tackle this in a more robust and holistic fashion: require developers to meet “Architecture 2030” goals for new buildings, a program that phases in fossil fuel reductions while, more importantly, targeting our biggest consumers of energy — our existing building stock. For example, this could be accomplished by specifically allocating community benefit funds awarded under new development to support greater energy efficiency conversion subsidies in Cambridge’s existing building stock. Under the Connolly Petition developers could meet net zero requirements by paying for carbon offsets — while missing the opportunity to direct more funding to key community and economic development opportunities.

From a carbon emissions reduction standpoint, Cambridge is a great place to build. Every hundred thousand square feet we add here is a hundred thousand square feet that’s not going up along Routes 128 or 495. Even a net-zero building in a suburban office park is likely to generate a far more negative impact on the climate and the environment than a building in Cambridge that complies with our currently applicable codes and regulations. Suburban construction often involves leveling greenspace and removing acres of carbon-absorbing vegetation. Storm runoff is unlikely to be carried through a separated system, as in much of Cambridge; instead, it is likely to be mixed with sewage, and treated in an emissions-intensive process. Connecting the new structure to roads and utilities generates additional impacts. Workers are far more likely to commute by car, pumping out carbon emissions, and accommodating their vehicles requires additional construction. Of course, no other local town is proposing to require net-zero construction; few even approach Cambridge’s current sustainability standards. The actual choice facing many developers is between meeting Cambridge’s rigorous standards, or taking advantage of the relatively lax rules imposed by most suburban communities. As we work to reduce carbon emissions, it makes sense to keep this broader picture in mind.

Any comprehensive plan to tackle carbon emissions in the Commonwealth would involve incentivizing developers to site their buildings along public transportation networks and proximate to dense residential areas. The Connolly petition, although clearly well-intentioned, seems likely to raise the cost of new development in Cambridge relative to surrounding communities, having the contrary effect. All carbon emissions, whatever their point of origin, have the same impact on our community and our environment. To the extent that this petition moves new construction away from Cambridge, with its high standards on sustainability, and into surrounding areas, it runs a substantial risk of actually raising the very emissions it proposes to contain. We do not believe that this is the outcome the petition seeks, nor do we think it is an outcome that most residents desire.

Focusing on net zero and energy efficiency only neglects the importance of addressing climate change adaptation holistically: in addition to energy efficiency of new buildings and existing buildings, we need to focus on other key climate mitigation strategies such as addressing water resources, resilience planning and mitigation, and innovative and integrated transportation strategies and policies that will effectively move people from their cars into alternative, low- or no-emissions transportation options.

Again, A Better Cambridge thanks the proponents of the Connolly Petition for challenging our community to take this important look at our carbon footprint in Cambridge. Unfortunately, we believe the proposed zoning takes a far too narrow approach that may effectively stall the very type of development we need to actually reduce emissions while addressing key housing/community development needs here in Cambridge.