Bay State impresses at Paris climate conference

Youth delegate reflects on state's leadership role

AFTER TWO DECADES, world leaders reached the first-ever truly global climate agreement at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris. President Obama and his fellow heads of state spoke powerfully about the need to unite to tackle climate change. Signed by 196 countries, the pact, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2020 sets concrete goals for capping greenhouse gas emissions to maintain a stable climate and keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

I’ve participated in these negotiations for five years as a youth delegate representing SustainUS, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for youth climate justice and sustainability. Our group came to the French capital to advocate for a climate deal that includes an aggressive climate target of zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050 and protection of human rights, such as giving indigenous peoples a say in the environmental decisions that affect their ways of life.

As one of nearly 100,000 Massachusetts clean energy professionals, I also see the need to make more strides here at home. At Next Step Living, a Boston-based home energy-efficiency company, I connect residents to home-energy efficiency services, including assessment programs that allow homeowners to access to rebates and incentives for home energy improvements.

In Massachusetts, the social and economic impacts of climate change are already being observed on our winter sports industry, fall foliage season, and fisheries. Climate change is a key reason that the regional cod catch has decreased 90 percent in the past few decades, and that shrimping season has been cancelled in the Gulf of Maine since 2013. In a business-as-usual fossil fuel consumption scenario, much of Boston and many towns along the coast could be underwater before 2100.

I discussed some of the Bay State’s approaches to tackling climate change with delegates like Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, who was particularly impressed by these achievements. Even I was surprised by how many people had heard of the Massachusetts accomplishments from our energy efficiency programs to new community solar initiatives.

The Paris deal sends a clear signal that the world is moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Local leaders must work on political roadblocks that stall progress at home and help the UN set more ambitious targets. But the pact does not include many of the mechanisms needed to ensure that agreed upon targets are met, like a fully-developed finance plan.

The new goals, which will be reviewed every five years, provide baselines that give the signatories opportunities to devise more ambitious climate policies. But adopting more rigorous plans would mean that countries are heeding scientists’ urgent warnings about what must be done to stabilize the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Bay State has already embraced ambitious climate and energy policies—including a statewide target to produce 25 percent of our energy from renewable sources like solar power by 2020. The green jobs sector (which includes environmental and clean energy jobs) grew nearly 12 percent in 2014, the largest single year growth since 2010 when the state first began collecting data. Jobs in this sector account for 3.3 percent of the state workforce.

For a fifth straight year, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy named Massachusetts the most energy efficient state in the country. The Bay State earned that distinction thanks to progressive programs like Mass Save, which provides residents with free assessments and incentives for home energy improvement, ranging from insulation to replacing incandescent light bulbs with new LEDs. The program has saved the state tens of millions in megawatt hours of electricity, and provided more than $500 million in direct benefits to residents.

Yet we can do better. Next year, Massachusetts will continue to debate potentially groundbreaking solar net-metering policies, a moratorium on dangerous fracked gas pipelines through cities and towns, and whether we become the first state in the country to divest state pension funds from fossil fuels stocks.

Meet the Author

The Paris negotiations are an important historical moment. The UN youth delegates poured an enormous amount of energy into the fight for an ambitious climate deal because we believe that our future is non-negotiable. A strong international climate treaty helps countries work cooperatively, but it’s not enough to limit temperatures from rising above life-threatening levels.

Real leadership will come from local actors who must help shift the politics, so that these baseline targets can be improved. By following the Bay State’s example of international climate leadership, those who act fast will reap greater economic and social benefits for themselves and for our planet.

 Somerville resident Adam Greenberg was a SustainUS youth delegate to the UN climate negotiations in Paris.