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By the middle of the century, Boston hopes to fill its streets with electric cars, cover its rooftops with solar panels, and rid its skies of all carbon emissions. In 2007, Boston joined cities around the globe in the 80×50 pledge—a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. In 2016, Boston’s mayor raised that goal to a 100 percent reduction in emissions.

Planning for full decarbonization requires collecting and analyzing vast amounts of emissions data, and Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission has contracted with BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy to provide much of that analysis. The institute will also recommend specific technologies and policies the city can adopt to meet its emissions target.

Cutler Cleveland, an energy expert and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment, is co-leading the project at BU with Peter Fox-Penner, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy. They’re being assisted by several students and by postdoctoral associate Margaret Cherne-Hendrick (GRS’16), who works as a liaison between the city and the University.

To create a precise climate action plan, Cleveland says local leaders need a better understanding of what activities in the city generate the most emissions. “And then, based on that information,” he says, “they need to understand what the city can do in terms of policies, strategies, volunteer activities, taxes, legislation—a variety of levers—to reduce those emissions by 100 percent by 2050. That’s a lot of work, and we’re engaged in helping them on both of those fronts.”

In 2016, Cleveland and his colleagues assessed software tools that simulate future greenhouse gas emissions and recommended the best picks for the city’s needs. They’re now analyzing the city’s major greenhouse gas–producing sectors—transportation, electrical power generation, buildings, and waste—and identifying specific technological changes the city can make in each sector.

Professor Cutler Cleveland

Cutler Cleveland says “big energy transitions take time” and that we can’t “just let political and economic forces unfold over time.” Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In a third phase of the project, BU will identify political strategies for making those technological changes happen. Many of those approaches will rely on state and regional collaboration, says Cleveland, because Boston has limited control over its transportation infrastructure and even less control over the sources of its electric power.

According to the city’s latest calculations, electricity—most of which is generated outside city limits—accounts for more than a third of Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions. The city also reports that between 2005 and 2013, its greenhouse gas emissions declined by 18 percent. Most of that reduction is attributed to cleaner sources of electricity, as New England power plants have switched from coal and oil to natural gas. Many Boston homes and buildings also now heat with natural gas rather than oil, newer cars have better fuel economy, and Boston businesses and residents have reduced their demand for electrical power.

“There are definitely improvements being made,” says Cleveland, “but emissions are certainly not declining at a rate that would get us to 100 percent by 2050.” City leaders understand, he says, that they will have to institute strong measures in the coming years to reduce energy consumption and promote cleaner energy production.

Cleveland is cautiously optimistic that Boston’s zero-carbon goal is attainable. New York City is one of very few cities that has completed the thorough planning and analysis Boston is now tackling, he says, and New York officials have concluded that reaching their 80×50 goal is technically and economically feasible. While Boston’s challenges and opportunities are different from New York’s, Cleveland says New York’s ability to create a workable plan gives him hope that Boston can do the same.

Boston’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is relatively small, but Cleveland says the city’s decarbonization work remains significant. “Boston is leading by example,” he says, showing other cities, states, and nations that aggressive climate action is both possible and politically popular.

The Institute for Sustainable Energy, he adds, is making plans to share the outcomes of its Boston research with other municipalities. The institute is raising funds to create a consortium that will offer other cities and states the type of data analysis and advice the University is currently providing for Boston.

Supporting cities and states in achieving their climate goals has taken on new urgency, says Cherne-Hendrick. Given the Trump administration’s apparent lack of interest in climate policy, she says, “this work is more important, especially on a local level, than it ever has been before.”

Cleveland agrees that the need to decarbonize is urgent. “This is not a business-as-usual scenario where we can just let political and economic forces unfold over time,” he says. “Big energy transitions take decades, even centuries, to happen. We don’t have that kind of time.” Unlike past transitions from wood to coal to oil, he says, the move away from carbon-based fuels needs to be actively managed. “We need to force a change and direct the system in a particular direction,” he says, “and that’s exactly what Boston is committed to doing.”