Progress Report: Study Shows Gains, Systemic Obstacles to Boston’s Ambitious Climate Goals

Special to the Times

A first-of-its-kind report on Boston’s collective progress toward being a carbon-neutral city by 2050, that was released last week, finds that while the city has made notable progress in some areas, a variety of obstacles will make meeting that goal difficult. The report, the Inaugural Boston Climate Progress Report, was prepared for the Boston Foundation by researchers at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

The report will be updated every two years to assess Boston’s progress toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, our resilience to future climate disruptions, and the equity of our climate response. The report highlights a dozen key outcomes that must be achieved by programs, projects, and initiatives whose success is imperative to reaching the overarching goals, and then lays out four “big lifts,” system-transforming actions which Boston—along with the broader region and state—needs to accelerate to sharply reduce net emissions.

“This is a comprehensive report that captures the complexity and nuances of making Boston an urban leader in climate protection and resilience,” said M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “It also sets a framework for tracking our ability to progress toward Boston’s ambitious but critically important goals of becoming a net-zero city that is prepared for the impacts of climate change and protects all its residents equitably.”

“As a coastal city, Boston is already seeing the effects of our changing climate and is pursuing  plans to mitigate them on multiple fronts,” said Amy Longsworth, Executive Director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. “What this report does is set out a framework for us to track our efforts during what will be a decades-long, all-in process to eliminate our carbon footprint and prepare ourselves for the impacts of a warming planet.  The challenge requires transformative action.  City government leadership is essential, but the action has to take place across all sectors.”

Commenting on the report District One City Councilor Gabriela Coletta said, “Boston is uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise due to climate change and a warming ocean. We must act with urgency and utilize innovative strategies seen around the world to reduce our carbon emissions. My coastal district will be disproportionately affected by the disastrous impacts of heat waves, storm surge, and other weather-related events. We need meaningful action at all levels of government and an investment from everyone to protect our collective future.”

The report was prepared by a team from the Dukakis Center led by Northeastern University Professor Joan Fitzgerald. The Northeastern team was joined by Michael Walsh, a partner and Director of Policy Research at Groundwork Data, a new think tank focused on helping cities to better use data to accelerate a clean, equitable, and resilient energy transition. The report was shaped in part by a 19-member Advisory Committee, including representatives from businesses, foundations, and nonprofit organizations that play a leadership role in the climate space.

“This report has been a significant undertaking, bringing together ideas and resources and building out a means through which we can begin to effectively understand our climate progress,” said Joan Fitzgerald, Professor of Urban and Public Policy at Northeastern University. “It also lays out potential courses of action that, if begun now, can accelerate our progress and strengthen both our equitable response and climate resiliency.”

2030 Emissions Goal Likely Out of Reach

The report notes that Boston has made measurable progress on its interim goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, despite increases in the built environment and a rise in vehicle miles driven. A cleaner grid, improvements in vehicle efficiency, the broad adoption of building energy efficiency measures from lighting to insulation, and oil-to-gas heating system conversions have all begun to bend emissions downward – but have only achieved incremental improvement. City climate policies, such as the Building Energy Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), also show potential but barring more systemic changes, the city has no clear path to meet its interim 2030 goal or its 2050 net zero target. The report emphasizes that an immediate pivot that builds off of recent federal and state legislation is necessary to get back on track to achieve the 2050 target.

The report also evaluates the city’s status on two critical themes of climate plans – the efforts to make Boston resilient to future climate impacts and the multipronged strategy to address climate issues equitably, as laid out in the City of Boston’s 2019 Climate Action Plan and elsewhere.

Because these goals can be challenging to quantify and difficult to measure, and because meeting any of these goals is expected to take years, if not decades, the Climate Progress Report offers a series of twelve key outcomes that are needed to achieve net-zero emissions, demonstrate climate resilience, and reflect equitable climate-related policies and outcomes, and provides a general assessment of where the city stands on each outcome (reflected in italics here):

Low Carbon Electricity: Boston must generate and be supplied with electricity sourced from renewable and other low-carbon generation resources.

A transition from coal to gas and early growth in regional solar has been responsible for pushing down electric sector emissions, but permitting delays have hindered wind growth and transmission capacity expansion. Both will need to be accelerated by the state and the regional authorities.

Electrified Mobility: Phase out the use of non–zero emissions vehicles and deploy accessible charging infrastructure.

Rapid market transformation, the State’s adoption of California’s zero emissions vehicle timeline, and the City’s leadership in guiding charging infrastructure deployment and electric school buses generate cautious optimism that this outcome can be largely achieved in time.

Equitable Housing and Mobility: Build more housing near transit and within the urban core. Accelerate strategies to reduce vehicle reliance and ownership by growing alternative travel modes and reshaping the street to prioritize the needs of people over vehicles.

The region is not yet building enough housing, nor is it sufficiently reducing vehicle reliance to support its climate goals.

Electric and Efficient Buildings: Electrify buildings while updating them for energy efficiency, comfort, and resilience.

Beyond Vicinity’s commitment to electrify Boston’s downtown steam system, the pace of building electrification is too slow; urgent attention is needed to accelerate and guide electrification across Boston’s building stock.

Greater Integration of Energy Systems: The utility-owned electric distribution grid must be modernized to support electrification, share the solar power generated on its roofs, and ensure resilience. Simultaneously, developing and sharing alternative thermal energy resources—such as the earth, water bodies, and waste heat—can efficiently displace fossil-fuel heating.

Efforts to develop modern energy district and microgrid systems in Boston have run into roadblocks due to legacy policy and institutions. Conflicts surrounding grid upgrades highlight the challenges facing the modernization of  the infrastructure needed for Boston’s climate goals.

Targeted and Modest Use of Fossil Fuels: Fossil fuel use must drastically decline by 2050; however, modest judicious use of fossil or alternative fuels (e.g., bioenergy) will be needed to support low-cost reliability and resilience.

Fuel use is not declining fast enough across all sectors to achieve emissions reduction targets. A lack of alignment among stakeholders on the future role of fuels challenges long-term planning threatening climate, cost, and reliability objectives.

Sustainable Waste Management: The amount of waste produced needs to decline while shifting to more sustainable waste treatment practices. These practices include locally-sited material and energy recovery processes such as composting and technologies that convert organic waste to gas, electricity, or liquid fuels.

Continuing plastic use and the region’s reliance on waste incineration challenges efforts to reduce emissions. The collection of organic waste for energy recovery provides an opportunity to advance climate and zero waste goals.

Responsible Carbon Dioxide Removal: Appropriately support the scaling of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies to extract carbon from the atmosphere and permanently store it in geologic or natural stocks.

Too many Boston institutions rely on buying offsets to make claims of net zero rather than prioritizing the outcomes above. CDR will play a role once mitigation efforts become exhausted, but this is not a viable near-term strategy.

Robust and Resilient Urban Forests: Boston must better manage its trees and natural spaces to ensure they grow and provide enhanced benefits to their communities in a changing climate.

The City of Boston’s recent 2022 Urban Forest Plan is a comprehensive and robust strategy for equitably restoring the city’s tree canopy. The private sector and property owners should embrace it.

Protection of the Coastline: Maintain ongoing implementation of coastal resilience strategies across Boston’s and the region’s coastline. These include both nature-based and hard-engineered flood and sea-level rise infrastructure adaptations to reduce the risk of coastal and riverine flooding, with the aim of protecting all neighborhoods.

Despite solid neighborhood plans, efforts to protect the coastline from sea-level rise and storm surges are challenged by a lack of funding and coordination among private property owners, the City and the State. 

Preparation for Extreme Weather: Prepare the infrastructure systems that support life in Boston for future climate conditions and create new resilient systems. These include stormwater, energy, transportation, and emergency support systems in both public and private spaces.

Hurricane Sandy could have hit Boston with similar force as it did in New York. Boston is currently unprepared for this likely future event on all fronts, despite deployment of new protective infrastructure.

Repair of Past Harms: Frontline communities have experienced a history of discriminatory practices, neglect, and outright damage.

A planning process to repair these harms should be initiated as emissions are mitigated, homes and blocks are made more resilient, economic opportunity is created, and community is revitalized.

“How Boston performs on these twelve outcomes tells us a great deal about how Boston is doing in moving toward its broader goals,” said Michael Walsh. “This report sets the framework for evaluating our collective efforts, which will require commitment from the City of Boston, critical partnerships with state and regional governments, and investments from the private sector.”

Evaluating Boston’s climate goals along these lines raised four critical areas of challenge, referred to as “Big Lifts” in the report, that are essential to achieving aggressive climate goals. The Big Lifts are linchpins to a successful response to our changing climate, but they are also decades-long, multifaceted efforts, each with their own challenges and priority actions. They are:

Retrofitting the Small Building Stock: 70,000 single- and small multifamily homes need to be electrified by a new industry powered by a workforce that represents the communities it serves.

Local Energy Planning for an Electrified City: As homes and business convert away from carbon-emitting technologies, energy planning must be rapidly modernized to meet the changing needs, enhance and modernize the distribution system, and make it more resilient in the face of extreme weather.

Building a Resilient Coastline through Improved Governance: Boston needs to be part of a decision-making process to create a governance structure for managing the Massachusetts coastline that could provide coordinated funding and mediate conflicting goals.

Prioritize Reparative Planning for Boston’s Frontline Neighborhoods: Boston must run with its “Green New Deal” vision to integrate climate action with reparative planning (and become a national leader in the process). Linking reparative planning to climate action creates the imperative that communities that have experienced the “first and worst” of climate change impacts— frontline communities— should be the first to receive the benefits of climate action.

These efforts will require systemic transformations driven by funding, State and City legislation, increased staff capacity at City Hall, coordination among community organizations, metrics and accountability frameworks, leadership by the private sector, and guiding support of citizens.

The Climate Progress Report is now available for download at https://tbf.org/climate2022. Detailed reports on each big lift are currently being finalized and will be released on the site in the coming months. Future iterations of the report are anticipated to explore other areas in detail such as transportation, the role of the private sector, and the impact of community organizations.

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