Boston’s next mayor must be bold on climate 

Let’s elect a leader committed to aggressive goals for green policies  

“I WANT TO see a mandatory recycling ordinance,” the city councilor and mayoral candidate said to an audience of 40 environmentalists, “[with] 50 percent recycling in Boston in four years.” 

It would be an ambitious statement to make at a virtual meet and greet in 2021 as the city prepares for an election to choose a new mayor. What’s stunning is that the call to significantly boost our recycling performance came from then-city councilor Joseph Tierney to a room full of activists at the Quincy School in Chinatown in 1987. What’s even more remarkable is that, nearly 35 years later, our current recycling rate hovers around 25 percent, underscoring just how little progress has been made on this front.  

To effectuate change, Boston’s next mayor must be bold on climate. And he or she must offer policies crafted through the lens of environmental justice. Through waste management, building standards, transportation, and green infrastructure, our mayor can build a city that is resilient, thriving, healthy, and green. By making sure that everyone has the same protections from environmental and climate health hazards, we will become a national leader.  

Let’s start with how we pick up trash — an unglamorous, but vitally important role of city government. When I was first elected to the City Council, we were earning a few dollars for every ton of recycling that was collected. Our tipping fee for trash was about $80 per ton. Now, 10 years later, we’re paying $85 for each collected ton of recycling and about $95 per ton for trash collection.  

The volatile commodity market underscores the financial incentive of increased recycling rates. It is possible to again earn a profit on certain collections. We can start by boldly moving away from single-stream recycling, a noble but impractical policy that results in higher contamination rates, and toward separate organic and textile curbside pickup. Finally, we should explore creating our own recycling facility for Greater Boston. The demand in the region has never been higher, and the potential for a highly profitable endeavor is enormous.  

Nextwe need to change how we build. As my decade-plus on the City Council comes to a close, I am particularly proud of passing two significant pieces of legislation: the Boston Energy and Reporting Disclosure Ordinance with Mayor Menino in 2013, and our work on Net Zero Carbon (NZC) construction. The next mayor should update the former and expand upon the latter.  

Nearly 70 percent of Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our buildings. Simply put, when we measure our energy and water usage, we manage it better. And when we construct buildings that are energy neutral, we actively lower our greenhouse gas emissions 

To Mayor Walsh’s credit, we’re already seeing an expansion to our initial mandate that all new municipal buildings comply with net zero carbon standards. Moreover, the Legislature has been pushing to update the state’s stretch energy code, which will support and expedite this effort. The most exciting news about this work is that study after study shows that the upfront cost differential between net zero carbon and non-NZC construction is increasingly de minimis. And, once built, it is proven that net zero carbon buildings produce significant energy savings right off the bat. There is an easy (and evidence-backed) argument to make that green building will result in more green in your wallet. 

When it comes to commuting and how we travel, we need to focus on multi-modal transportation and infrastructure for bikes, electric scooters, and buses. We need to be brave when it comes to our public transportation system.  

While the MBTA is a state-run agency, there is no question that it will be—and should be—an issue in a municipal election. Working with our state partners, let’s finally and fully fund a system that is expansive and efficient. If done right, the investment will be more than paid for in increased ridership revenue. Boston should follow Copenhagen’s lead. Because of their wildly successful (and well-funded) system, a majority of commuters take the Copenhagen Metro to work. Investments in travel infrastructure have the Danish city on pace to reach their goal of having 75 percent of all trips via foot, bike, or public transportation. 

Meet the Author
Finally, the next mayor should be aggressive when it comes to building renewable energy infrastructure. Bostonians are now getting more of their energy from renewable sources, and it’s time that we produce more of it within the city limits. Envision photovoltaic canopies shading our municipal parking lots. Wind turbines dotting our Harbor Islands. Imagine our next mayor cutting the ribbon at Boston’s first hydropower plant. 

The opportunities are endless. The potential for making Boston the greenest city in America is limitless. Like our city, our next mayor must be bold, innovative, and a leader on climate policy. 

Matt O’Malley has served as a Boston city councilor since 2010 and chairs the council’s Committee on Environment, Sustainability, and Parks. He announced in December that he won’t seek reelection this fall.