I write to urge the City Council to adopt strong measures for carbon emissions reduction in Cambridge.

I support the Ordinance Committee’s vote to adopt 2035 as the target date for net-zero emissions for large buildings in Cambridge. But I am concerned about proposals by business and university representatives presented at the last committee meeting for 100 percent global offsets. While some may be needed to reach this target, global offsets are very questionable. Extensive criticism of many global offsetting programs has pointed out that such programs often fail to achieve any measurable carbon reduction, and may have additional negative effects – such as the displacement of indigenous peoples to allow go-betweens to profit from forest offsets. Some effective offset programs do exist, but they need to be evaluated carefully and used with caution.

Much better are local offsets, such as the “alternative compliance credits” proposed by the Community Development Department. These provide for measurable, verifiable local reductions in carbon emissions and have other potential local benefits, such as reducing heating costs for low-income residents and providing local employment in “green” jobs. Reducing local emissions also has environmental justice benefits, since harmful pollutants resulting from fossil fuel combustion are often present in higher concentrations in low-income communities.

But best of all is actual reductions in emissions by large polluters. Clearly there is resistance to the necessary investment required for such reductions. This business position is consistent with the major utilities’ strategy of continuing to rely on “natural” gas (a misnomer, since there is nothing natural about fracked gas). Rather than shifting to more efficient heat-pump and geothermal systems, 100 percent global offsets would allow major emitters to do nothing about their current emissions while buying low-cost and possibly ineffective global carbon credits.

An effective strategy, therefore, should place first priority on actual, verifiable emissions by current major polluters. The second priority should be local offsets. If global offsets are allowed at all, they should be only a small part of the total strategy, and should be permitted only after a rigorous process of evaluation of specific programs.

Otherwise we risk finding out, after implementing a 2035 “net zero” program, that in fact there has been no reduction in Cambridge carbon emissions and other pollutants (and possibly an increase due to expansion of commercial properties and labs), while the global offsets that have been bought are at best ineffective and perhaps actually harmful.

Please vote for a rigorous and effective policy for actual carbon reduction.

Jonathan Harris, Marie Avenue


Jonathan Harris is a visiting scholar at the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute.