The City of Chicago recently released the Chicago Building Decarbonization Strategy Report, which includes recommendations from the Chicago Building Decarbonization Working Group (CBDWG) on how to equitably address greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. Since almost 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago come from the built environment, decarbonizing this sector will be essential to meeting the 2022 Chicago Climate Action Plan target of a 62% reduction in citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
The report begins with a letter from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in which she expresses pride in the process of developing the report and its final recommendations. She also emphasizes environmental justice as a key component of this work: “As we move toward policy implementation, we must reinforce the importance of equitable decarbonization, and to keep in mind that the climate crisis disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color.”
The CBDWG, which is composed of 53 technical experts, civic leaders and diverse stakeholders, including MEEA Executive Director Stacey Paradis and other MEEA members, spent over a year researching decarbonization initiatives, holding large meetings and small discussion groups and engaging stakeholders citywide. According to Angela Tovar, Chief Sustainability Officer with the City of Chicago, “The process to develop this strategy is a first-class demonstration of partnership between government, technical experts, advocates, community, and business leaders to design meaningful climate mitigation policies.” In the final report, the CBDWG provides 26 recommended strategies, from programs to policies, to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Chicago buildings. These recommendations are broken up into four sections in the report.
Section 1. Leverage known pathways to achieve net carbon neutrality in all new buildings
Since the lifetime of a building can last 70 to 80 years, ensuring buildings are the most efficient at the time of construction is crucial. Addressing a building’s energy use from the start is also simpler, more cost-effective and easier to enforce. To address energy use in new construction buildings, this section includes strategies to encourage new net zero buildings such as phasing out allowed uses of fossil fuel-burning equipment for new buildings and major renovations (including a mandated Fossil Fuel Mitigation Fee during some phases), eventually passing a net-zero energy code, and developing demonstration projects depicting Whole Life Cycle Carbon Zero analyses in various building sectors.
Section 2. Help building owners navigate pathways to improving building energy use and performance
Improving building energy performance in residential, commercial, institutional and industrial buildings can result in better indoor and outdoor air quality, improved occupant comfort, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less reliance on fossil fuels. To address energy use in existing buildings, this section recommends greatly expanding the scope of the Chicago Benchmarking Ordinance by including buildings of 25,000 sq. ft. (previously it only included buildings 50,000 s. ft. or larger), creating a Building Performance Standard (BPS) that applies to most existing buildings based on benchmarking data, developing a heat pump pilot project and more.
Section 3. Build, develop and support the social, financial and technical resources that result in a self-sustaining clean energy economy
For the decarbonization strategies in this report to be most successful, the authors also included implementation support strategies. This section includes 10 recommendations that range from financial to workforce development initiatives. These recommendations include developing a building decarbonization hub and community hubs inspired by successes in other cities, forming a Chicago Green Bank to accelerate the clean energy transition, expanding outreach in underserved communities and providing further support for green jobs.
Section 4. Fund and prioritize equitable community engagement that cultivates resilient partnerships and advances hyperlocal benefits
The CBDWG was particularly interested in finding the best ways to engage with all people in Chicago, in addition to building relationships and repairing trust within communities. This section’s largest recommendation calls for the development of an equitable outreach and engagement plan which would include equity-based metrics, mapping stakeholder groups, convening community members and connecting the plan to existing city initiatives. This section’s recommendations also include investing in demonstration projects and expanding existing community solar initiatives.
With the Chicago Building Decarbonization Strategy Report released, the next steps will be to continue conversations with stakeholders and begin recommended policy and program development. A status update memo is expected to be released annually to track development and implementation progress on the report’s 26 recommendations.
Section 1: Leverage known pathways to achieve net carbon neutrality in all new buildings
- Regularly increase requirements for energy efficiency and building performance while phasing out allowed uses of fossil-fuel-burning equipment for both new buildings and in connection with major renovations.
- Implement a mandated Fossil Fuel Mitigation Fee for any new construction that is built with fossil fuel burning equipment during the phased adoption of eliminating fossil fuels in new buildings.
- Empower the Zoning Administrator, Building Commissioner and related administrative bodies to grant administrative relief and/or implement incentives and bonuses that explicitly further decarbonization goals.
- Establish an advisory group to regularly review and make recommendations to amend technical construction and zoning requirements to promote decarbonization through the design and construction of new buildings based on stakeholder input and national/ international best practices.
- Implement a phased approach to transition city-funded new construction projects from fossil fuel energy sources to all-electric buildings with low carbon considerations that ultimately result in a net zero carbon code
- Increase City staffing to support new building decarbonization policies and actions.
- Identify and develop demonstration projects depicting Whole Life Cycle Carbon Zero analyses among several different building sectors, then widely publicize the educational findings while deploying targeted messaging for numerous audiences.
Section 2: Help building owners navigate pathways to improving building energy use and performance
- The City of Chicago should expand the Chicago Energy Benchmarking ordinance to apply to most buildings, with tiered compliance based on building size and type, and provide voluntary benchmarking opportunities and incentivized options for the smallest properties not covered by the ordinance.
- Building off of the City of Chicago’s successful Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, the City should adopt a Building Performance Standard that establishes energy performance targets for most existing buildings and provide voluntary and incentivized options for the smallest properties not covered by the ordinance.
- Urge other taxing bodies to protect building owners from property tax increases related to clean energy upgrades and support protecting tenants from bearing the direct costs of clean energy upgrades.
- Conduct a building segmentation and characterization study that will inform energy efficiency, renewable energy and other clean energy building improvements.
- Develop a heat pump pilot project to emphasize and encourage the adoption of new but proven technologies, while considering other emerging technologies for pilot projects.
Section 3: Build, develop and support the social, financial and technical resources that result in a self-sustaining clean energy economy
- Develop a Building Decarbonization Hub and corresponding decentralized “community hubs” in priority neighborhoods.
- Form a Green Bank for Chicago.
- Conduct a study to better understand the viability of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing and other low-cost green loan structures.
- Provide historically underserved communities with deep, local and inclusive engagement efforts that result in broad participation of energy efficiency, renewable energy and electrification strategies and incentives.
- Seek out state and federal funding to develop resources and fund the work.
- Seek support from public and private philanthropy.
- Develop and support multiple workforce development, career development and small business development trainings related to the growth in “green jobs” already occurring and expected to occur as the built environment embraces decarbonization. Further, target participation in historically marginalized communities as an avenue for building community wealth.
- Develop and sustain robust external-facing training on construction and zoning code requirements.
- Develop a building decarbonization directory of vendors, products and service providers that is accessible to the public.
- Create a just and equitable economic transition plan for the fossil gas industry in Chicago, which will be impacted by these decarbonization goals.
Section 4: Fund and prioritize equitable community engagement that cultivates resilient partnerships and advances hyperlocal benefits
- Develop an equitable outreach and engagement plan that prioritizes repairing, building trust and investing in communities that have not been engaged in or informed about decarbonization initiatives, and creates pathways for strengthening relationships among stakeholders for coordinated and diverse cross-sector collaboration.
- Leverage cross-sector relationships to develop nuanced, multi-disciplined partnerships and funding opportunities.
- Strategically invest in demonstration projects.
- Fund and support the broad expansion of community solar and central community systems, other onsite/offsite renewable energy systems and related resilience measures to advance a successful clean energy transition.