Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has emphasized the need to keep global warming below 1.5 Celsius to avoid some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis, which will require a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions steadily to zero by 2050. In the United States, though, action to curb emissions lags. A bill that would put the country on track to reduce emissions to 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 is being stalled in the U.S. Senate, and federal agencies’ ability to regulate CO2 emissions is being challenged in court. In this context, local policies are a critical avenue for action. The current proposed policies to strengthen our climate action plan – the Cambridge Green New Deal and accelerated net-zero timeline known as B-2035 – are an opportunity for local climate action and provide a template for how a just and equitable energy transition can be achieved at the scale of a city.

Together, these policies accelerate the timeline for existing commercial buildings to reach zero operating emissions in 2035 instead of 2050 and mandate that the construction and operation of new commercial buildings be zero-emissions from day one. A fee on emissions above these limits – called an Alternative Compliance Credit – will fund green jobs training programs for Cambridge residents, ensuring they can participate in the rapidly growing fields of climate mitigation and adaptation. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate Action Plan states that “the world will not solve the climate problem without solving the intertwined problems of equity and economic transition.” By using funds raised predominantly from wealthy commercial property owners to pay for programs that benefit principally working-class Cambridge residents, these policies will help reduce inequality while simultaneously incentivizing emissions reductions.

While the debates in past City Council hearings have focused on accounting details, it is important to note that the Alternative Compliance Credit is an alternative to reducing direct emissions from building operation and construction – the ultimate goal of these policies. New construction is only a small portion of the projected building stock in Cambridge, but these buildings will become the building stock of our future, and we will be stuck with their emissions for many decades. Addressing the current building stock is a complex and challenging task, depending on utility providers in addition to building owners. It is precisely this complexity that requires us to aim early and begin implementing zero-carbon solutions now. While the existing 2050 timeline is less daunting than the proposal for 2035, Cambridge has the obligation and means to rise to the occasion and lead U.S. decarbonization efforts.

As members of the MIT community, we are especially disappointed that our administration is acting to weaken these policies – and want the City Council to know that this is not reflective of the interests or the opinions of the entire community here, whose faculty and students broadly support institutional action to address the climate crisis. The council’s first obligation should be to the thousands of Cambridge residents who would benefit from the programs created by the Green New Deal and/or will face escalating climate impacts if emissions continue unabated.

It is well within MIT’s means to comply with these new policies. We estimate its annual Alternative Compliance Credit for campus building construction would be about $800,000, based on average annual construction and current emissions. The institute has already pledged to eliminate direct campus emissions by 2050. If it makes no changes to plans, the average annual Alternative Compliance Credit from now until 2050 would be about $9 million to be compliant with the proposed 2035 schedule. Of course, we hope it will use this as an opportunity to accelerate its own plan to eliminate campus emissions. These values are far lower than cumulative spending in capital projects ($475 million) and operating budget ($3.7 billion) in 2021. In addition to what would be paid for construction and operations on-campus, these policies would add about $2 per square foot to the cost of its commercial real estate development projects in Kendall Square. The investments are ultimately to support a mission to advance knowledge and educate students to best serve the nation and the world. We expect this service to be prioritized over financial returns if they conflict. Further, instead of viewing these costs as a burden on its financial interests, they should be viewed as an investment in the future of our campus, community and planet.

MIT points to its research on climate change and clean technologies to promote itself as a leader on climate issues. But much of this same research also shows that innovations in low-carbon technologies will be stifled unless policies, such as a price on emissions, are in place to support widespread deployment. If the institute is serious about scaling innovations to materially affect the climate crisis, it should support policies such as the Green New Deal and B-2035 locally – as well as climate policies at the state and national level.

These proposals are rooted in an acknowledgement of the complex relationship between Cambridge residents, city government and our burgeoning tech industry. The growth of this industry around MIT and Harvard has brought jobs, money and prestige to Cambridge, yet has transformed neighborhoods and left many residents behind. The large commercial buildings that hold these offices and labs also account for more than half of total emissions here. If we are to continue to grow as a city – physically, economically, socially – we must do so in a more intentional and equitable manner.

The Green New Deal and B-2035 represent important steps toward creating a thriving low-carbon economy in Cambridge while reducing inequality. While individuals may disagree with specific details of the policies, the costs of delaying climate action are too high to wait for full consensus. We urge the City Council to pass this proposal and encourage institutions such as MIT and Harvard to continue collaboration with the city.

Ippolyti Dellatolas, Will Sawyer, Owen Leddy and Sara Sheffels, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The writers are doctoral students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Ippolyti Dellatolas and Will Sawyer the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Owen Leddy in the Department of Biological Engineering; and Sara Sheffels in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.