Boston, too, needs to do more on climate change

Build offshore wind, electrify transportation sector

CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL and it is here. In Boston, the impacts of climate change are already tangible. In January of this year a massive nor’easter brought a devastating storm surge with ice chunks floating down Atlantic Avenue. The image of a rogue dumpster riding the surf down the streets in the Seaport and tides invading South Shore neighborhoods were captivating images, and harbingers of things to come.

Boston has taken steps to prepare for climate change. But we can and should do more. Specifically, the city should tap into offshore wind power; electrify city buses; and expand the use of battery power. More details on these recommendations follow below.

The Environmental League of Massachusetts applauds Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for his initial planning efforts to both help prepare the city for the effects of climate change and to do its part to reduce greenhouse gases. Recently Walsh released the Resilient Boston Harbor Vision plan. The plan is aimed at stemming the impacts of climate change by focusing investment in Boston’s waterfront to protect the city’s residents, homes, jobs, and infrastructure. The city’s efforts to transform the parking lot at Sargent’s Wharf into a combination of open space and resilient small-scale development as well as major re-visioning of the Fort Point Channel are good examples of this plan in action.

These planning concepts are sound, but the city needs to follow through during the zoning and permit approval process to realize what is called for in the plan. This can be difficult if developers don’t share the same vision or sense of urgency and it will fall to the mayor and his administration to ensure that new development is aligned with climate-ready goals. We also note some missed opportunities in the plan for maximizing property and tax revenues while also providing resiliency. For example, innovative development plans for areas like Widett Circle that would provide open space to accommodate flood waters alongside development were not included. In order to maximize the ability of the city to adapt to climate challenges, all options must be on the table.

Resiliency planning, however, is only part of the equation. Boston can and must do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On this front the city is also off to a good start. The Climate Action Plan is Boston’s blueprint for reaching its goals to reduce carbon emissions and to prepare for the impacts of climate change. The city’s plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, and to become carbon neutral by 2050. In fact, Boston’s Climate Action Plan was one of the reasons that Bloomberg Philanthropies just named Boston a winner of its “American Cities Climate Challenge.” This award means Boston is one of the top 20 cities in the nation to tackle climate change and to promote a sustainable future for its residents. The award will provide Boston with new technical resources to help the city meet its carbon reduction targets.

Boston’s Climate Action Plan was first completed in 2007, and an update is now in process. The Environmental League would like to see the city adopt the following action items to ensure the city is on track to become carbon neutral by 2050:

  • Use clean offshore wind power to meet Boston’s electricity needs. In December, the federal government will auction new offshore areas (totaling nearly 390,000 acres) south of Martha’s Vineyard for new offshore wind development. This is in addition to the existing offshore wind leaseholds. The city announced in June its intention to team up with municipalities across the country to jointly enter into a renewable power purchase agreement to offset the emissions of Boston’s electricity demand. This project, however, may be built outside of New England. If the city entered into an agreement with offshore wind developers, we could also realize the economic benefits from renewable energy development. Under the current plan, these benefits will flow out of state. The first contracts signed earlier this year between the state’s major utilities and Vineyard Wind will result in a savings for Bay State ratepayers of over $1.5 billion over 20 years and result in greenhouse gas savings of 1.6 million tons per year. These are the types of savings that Boston can take advantage of with its own power purchase agreement.
  • Modernize transportation options. If Boston is going to make serious strides to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it needs a 21st century transportation system. Moving people and goods around is the source of nearly one-third of the harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the city. The fossil fuels we burn in our cars, trucks, and buses also emit other pollutants that cause a wide range of health problems like asthma, especially in our most vulnerable populations. Electric vehicles avoid these emissions and are better for our planet and our lungs. Therefore, Boston should work to electrify its bus fleet and build a robust charging infrastructure for all electric vehicles. Yes, electric buses cost more up front than diesel buses, but studies show they have lower operating costs and they avoid the negative health impacts making them a sound investment for our financial and physical health.
  • Increase the use of large batteries to reduce peak electricity demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy storage technology can be utilized to build resilience, lower emissions, and save customers money on electric bills. Due to falling prices, the deployment of battery technology already makes sense for many large energy customers, like commercial buildings (buildings account for the majority of emissions in the city). The city should explore opportunities to deploy battery technology in city facilities and work with the private sector to promote the deployment of batteries. This technology complements clean, yet intermittent, sources of energy such as solar and wind. Batteries can be used at critical times to help reduce emissions and meet power needs when needed most. Like offshore wind, this approach has the added benefit of direct economic benefits to Boston as we are home to an incredibly rich battery research and development industry.

These efforts are critical, not only for the city but for the Commonwealth and beyond. Through our work on Beacon Hill, we see that Boston’s City Hall has an outsized influence in whether the state raises the bar or maintains the status quo. Boston is a powerful role model with the ability to shift our collective frame of reference.

It seems the state took courage from Boston’s clear-eyed assessment of climate risks. Now, the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program (an initiative whereby the state awards select communities with funding to complete vulnerability assessments and develop action-oriented resiliency plans) is celebrated as a model for other states. Massachusetts also recently passed an environmental bond authorizing $2.4 billion for climate adaptation and resilience. Other states are taking note of our relatively bold investments and are setting their sights higher because of it. What began in Boston is making the world better.

Meet the Author

Eric Wilkinson

Director of energy and climate policy, Environmental League of Massachusetts
However, both Boston and the state are struggling to define the pathway to meet their greenhouse gas reduction goals. Both are choked by transportation emissions and hooked on natural gas, particularly for thermal energy. We all need Boston to raise its sights and move more quickly – for its own sake and to model a path for others.

Eric Wilkinson is the general counsel and director of energy policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.