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Eight Ways Boston Could Become Carbon Free

BU researchers outline aggressive plan for the city to reduce emissions by 2050


Takeaway 1. Boston will need to create support programs for socially vulnerable populations to make sure that everyone has equal access to energy efficiency and clean energy. A report is due out in March 2019 to outline strategies to ensure social equity.

Takeaway 2. About two-thirds of Boston’s total city emissions stem from old, energy-inefficient dwellings and commercial properties. Around 86,000 buildings—residential and commercial—will require retrofit—like improved insulation, use of energy-efficient lighting to reduce emissions, and switching oil- and gas-powered buildings to efficient electric systems.

Takeaway 3. Nearly 70 percent of Boston’s transportation emissions come from personal vehicles, and more than 75 percent of those vehicles make trips that start or end outside of Boston. To achieve carbon-neutral transportation, people need to shift away from using cars and adopt public transit, biking, and walking modes; reduce the number of total car trips by increasing development in areas well serviced by public transit; and convert most cars, trucks, buses, and trains to being powered by zero-carbon electricity.

Takeaway 4. Vehicle electrification can be achieved through restrictions on use of gasoline-powered vehicles, creating a reliable system of charging stations around the city, and offering financial incentives to people who adopt electric-powered cars. Congestion can further be reduced by imposing fines/charges for driving personal vehicles into the heart of the city.

Takeaway 5. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Standard, a 2017 set of regulations enacted by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, will do a lot of heavy lifting through its requirement that the state’s electricity grid be 80 percent powered by clean energy (such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric power) by 2050.

Takeaway 6. The city is currently completing the planning stages of a Zero Waste Boston initiative. Zero waste will greatly reduce waste-related emissions. To further reduce food waste, the city and its residents must increase reuse, recycling, and composting. Also, generating methane gas from the city’s food waste can further offset emissions.

Takeaway 7. With 500 municipal buildings, the city can lead by example when it comes to optimizing energy efficiency and implementing zero-waste strategies.

Takeaway 8. In addition to reducing $600 million in annual energy bills, increased energy efficiency and expanded networks of public transit, biking, and walking will be beneficial for public health, social equity, and the city’s livability.

A January 29, 2019, report based on research led by the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy (ISE) reveals the massive strides that Boston will have to make in order for the city to reach its goal of carbon neutrality—having a zero net carbon footprint—by 2050.

The recommendations serve as a plan to mitigate global climate change, which has noticeably impacted Boston and the Northeast’s weather conditions in recent years. It’s not only a bold step forward in addressing climate change in Boston, but the report could serve as a framework for other cities and regions to map out the specific actions required to reduce emissions far and wide.

Locally, the “Carbon Free Boston” report advises that the city’s policymakers and residents will have to adhere to a drastic action plan that calls for big changes to Bostonians’ current ways of life, such as retrofitting most of the city’s building stock with energy-efficient features and for all vehicles on the road to be electric-powered. Yet, despite the up-front investment that will take, the report also revealed that there will be a big payoff in the future.

“One of the key takeaways is that we can eliminate most greenhouse gas contributions and that the deep energy retrofits [required to do so] will pay for themselves over the lifetime of investment,” says Cutler Cleveland, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment and principal investigator for the report. If all goes according to the report’s guidelines, Cleveland says, “utility bills for the city as a whole will be $600 million lower.”

“We’ve always known energy efficiency is an untapped opportunity,” he says. He calls the potential for $600 million in annual savings a “tremendous social benefit that could be a massive stimulus” for the city’s residents.

In 2017, when Mayor Martin Walsh announced the goal of a carbon-neutral Boston by 2050, he asked the Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC) “to really take a look” at what it would take to achieve carbon neutrality. In turn, the GRC searched for a research group to take the lead on data collection and analysis.

“We came around to the ISE at Boston University as having the most nuanced and in-depth approach,” says Amy Longsworth, director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission.

“Boston University researchers have long been invested in understanding climate change and promoting sustainable energy; their work has informed our Boston University Climate Action Plan, which was adopted by our board in December 2017. It is tremendously gratifying to see that work being strategically applied citywide,” says Robert A. Brown, Boston University president.

The detailed report, based on two years of work by the ISE in close collaboration with stakeholders from the GRC and the city of Boston, contains specific options for improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions across Boston’s buildings, transportation, waste, and energy sectors.

“The ISE was chartered to be a University-wide ‘think and do’ tank,” says Peter Fox-Penner, a BU Questrom School of Business professor of the practice, markets, public policy, and law, and director of ISE. He says that its mission was to have impactful engagement with policymakers and industry to enable a future of sustainable energy. “In that sense, this project was so in keeping with our whole charter and whole mission to do excellent research and change the world with it.”

Chris Cook, Boston’s chief of environment, energy, and open space and commissioner of parks and recreation, says an important thing to note is that in contrast to other generic guidelines for reducing carbon emissions, the report’s guidelines are specific to Boston itself. And rather than envisioning the use of still-developing technologies, it shows how the city can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 through already-existing technologies.

Travel modes and greenhouse gas emissions. Personal vehicles generate the most emissions in Boston by far. Source: Institute for Sustainable Energy calculations

Travel modes and greenhouse gas emissions. Personal vehicles generate the most emissions in Boston by far. Source: Institute for Sustainable Energy calculations

<b>Current and future energy use. </b>Top shows the use of energy sources in Boston throughout 2015 as well as energy losses generated from those sources. Bottom shows recommended use of energy sources by 2050, as well as projected reductions in energy losses. Source: Boston Community Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Institute for Sustainable Energy calculations

Current and future energy use. Top shows the use of energy sources in Boston throughout 2015 as well as energy losses generated from those sources. Bottom shows recommended use of energy sources by 2050, as well as projected reductions in energy losses. Source: Boston Community Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Institute for Sustainable Energy calculations

“With great opportunities, there will be great challenges,” Cook says, acknowledging the magnitude of changes that the report calls for.

But based on interactions that the city has with the students in its public schools, Cook is optimistic that the next generation will rise to the occasion. “The upcoming generation are going to be the decision makers before 2050, and there is a deep commitment [among them] to climate mitigation. I think they’re going to be pushing us to move faster.”

He says the city has already independently “been the recipient of advocacy from students” asking for their school buildings to be “decarbonized.” The set of expectations he sees from Boston’s young people, Cook says, are “nothing short of impressive.”

The work of Carbon Free Boston was supported by these organizations: Barr Foundation, Sherry and Alan Leventhal Foundation, The Grantham Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Henry P. Kendall Foundation, City of Boston, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, National Grid, Eversource, Bank of America, C40, Microsoft, and Orsted.


2 Comments on Eight Ways Boston Could Become Carbon Free

  • Sarah Finnie Robinson on 01.29.2019 at 8:41 am

    Outstanding work by the ISE team, prescribing an ambitious plan with impressive benefits that establishes Boston as a national (and international) leader on climate solutions — and is perfectly aligned with the University’s own bold Climate Action Plan.

  • Elder Care Connections on 01.29.2019 at 9:55 am

    I am excited by these proposed changes, and I would like to see the city engage with Retirement Communities in and around Boston to make public transportation more accessible. My elderly parents still drive because the time it takes them to drive is so much less than the public transportation system can support. My parents joke, “I could be dead before I get anywhere, and that’s if the trains run at all.” They gravitate towards larger, and less efficient, SUV cars because they think they are safer. Their retirement community’s parking lot is filled with larger SUV-like cars. I would like to see our ever increasing elderly population empowered with timely options other than driving so they have real choices and can keep their independence. This idea sounds like it might be part of the plan above, but as some retirement communities residents are considered well off, they may fall outside of the vulnerable populations definition.

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