Next week the Cambridge City Council will consider a petition to require new or newly renovated buildings of 25,000 square feet or more to be net-zero emissions. Under the rule, any energy that buildings use beyond what they produce must be sourced from approved, renewable energy sources. While intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the rule would have some easy to foresee side effects:
Jeff Roberts, a land use and zoning project planner for the city, said the cost of developing what is being called “net zero” buildings could be passed on to tenants, and could drive away new development.
“There’s always the possibility that this would create a shift–that the cost might cause development that would otherwise occur in Cambridge to occur in other communities that don’t have similar requirements, such as Boston or Somerville or suburban areas,” Roberts said.
With this rule, Cambridge would follow in the path of other cities that have attempted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the local level. Santa Monica has been one of the municipalities leading the way on attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 1994. The city has adopted its own standards for greenhouse gas reduction, but has made little progress toward its defined targets, today using 35% more electricity per household than the average California household does. While the environmental activists that support these local-level rules surely realize that greenhouse gases do not recognize political jurisdictions, local greenhouse gas emissions reductions in cities like Santa Monica and Cambridge miss the real opportunities to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
It’s unsurprising that very left-leaning cities have pioneered these types of rules, but in doing so, these cities are missing the real opportunities they have to reduce emissions. Santa Monica is one of the most walkable places in the Los Angeles area, offering opportunities for those in other LA neighborhoods to switch to a lower-greenhouse gas lifestyle by moving there. However, density restrictions and a complex entitlement process reduce building supply there. While the city is seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions among its own residents, it’s simultaneously preventing the development of new, higher-density development that could reduce more Los Angeles residents’ demand for driving.
Similarly, Cambridge has a Walk Score of 82, along with better transit access than many Boston suburbs. The proposed “net zero” rule would take away opportunities for people to live in Cambridge, likely pushing them to suburbs where they will probably lead higher carbon emission lifestyles than they would have in Cambridge. While local policymakers and activists may want to feel like they are doing something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they should first look at the existing regulations that promote greenhouse gas emissions rather than implementing a new regulations with its own unintended consequences.
The effect of Santa Monica’s infamous rent control policy has diminished because the rules don’t apply to all new buildings, but a plethora of regulations reduce the city’s supply of dense, rentable housing. In Cambridge, minimum parking requirements act as an obstacle to new residential and retail growth, pushing this growth to the suburbs instead. If policymakers and activists in the cities that are charting new territory on local greenhouse gas emissions care about carbon emissions more than the political credibility of being seen as doing something, they should seek deregulation in their cities rather than adding new regulations that will further restrict growth in dense, walkable areas. At the very least they should not pursue rules that will drive more carbon emissions to neighboring municipalities.