Monday, May 20, 2024

We have just gone through a summer showing us some ways climate change will affect us. While there’s no way to avoid many of its consequences, we can slow its progress. There are numerous existing and successful “model laws,” many of them inexpensive to implement, that could be adapted easily for use in Cambridge. While some would require permission from the state Legislature via home rule petitions, these are often rubber-stamped if brought in by our state representatives.

Cambridge once led the way for cities and towns on human rights and housing protection. It can become a regional and national model again on ameliorating our impact on the planet and combating climate change – by taking immediate action to adopt these and other measures.

Zero idling

Car and truck idling wastes fuel, destroys exhaust systems and needlessly produces global warming gases. Diesel idling is especially toxic, producing exhaust with known carcinogens and toxins. Idling is also the easiest source of global warming gases to eliminate. Right now, state law prohibits idling more than five minutes, but this is rarely enforced. But how much should be permitted? Some argue the answer is zero, except perhaps at traffic lights and by trucks that need to keep an engine running to operate a lift gate or refrigeration unit. Implementing a zero-idling ordinance would start with putting signs where it is rampant (taxi stands, in front of schools and at at the Department of Public Works).

Computerized traffic lights

Cambridge had computerized traffic lights decades ago but gave up on the system despite numerous advantages: Emergency vehicles can override the signals, allowing them to respond faster, potentially saving lives. Buses can travel more smoothly. It cuts idling at traffic lights. Traffic can be set to flow at a specific and safer speed, such as 20 mph, eliminating the urge for drivers to speed up for green lights.

Computerized traffic signals are the norm in most large cities throughout the world. (In some cities, such as Copenhagen, lights are timed at 12 mph for bicycles.)

Mandatory construction recycling

California is among the world’s leaders in diverting waste to recycling. In Massachusetts, construction and demolition debris, the contents of all the roll-off dumpsters around the city, are sent to landfill, even if they are made up of recyclable materials. There are many model ordinances we could adopt – one from San Diego that has been copied in numerous communities simply requires any building permit application to include a recycling plan, and that roll-off dumpsters be accompanied by a recycling container. Recycling cuts down on global warming gases.

New-construction solar mandate

California has a model state law – the first of its kind in the United States – that requires rooftop solar photovoltaic systems to be equipped on all new homes. It could be adapted here easily.

Solar protection

The California Solar Rights Act says a neighbor or the municipality cannot plant a tree that would put an adjacent rooftop in shade. There are many appropriate trees that grow to heights of 25 feet or less, including many native species, that would provide shade but not block a neighbor’s rooftop. This ordinance would allow the installation of more solar panels and protect existing ones from being blocked. The 75-foot behemoths (such as the ones offered by DPW in its oddly misguided initiative) would be allowed only if they wouldn’t eventually shade any neighbor’s rooftop.

Only hybrids or EVs for municipal vehicles

The city should not be buying vehicles and equipment that exacerbate climate change. Furthermore, we should require that all municipal passenger vehicles be hybrids or EVs. This should additionally ban large SUVs (those over 3,500 pounds) for passenger vehicle use. Emergency vehicles could be exempted.

No to diesel vehicles, yes to combination trash-recycling-compost-yard waste trucks

This would require that the city stops buying diesel equipment unless there are no alternatives. Diesel is dirty; it produces excessive levels of CO2 and thousands of known carcinogens. While heavy trucks used to be equipped only with diesel engines, they are now available as models that burn alternative fuels, or are hybrid or electric. Public Works’ four single-stream trucks (trash, compost, yard waste, recycling) cover 125 miles – the total of Cambridge streets – every weekday, adding up to 130,000 miles annually. Add snow plowing and street cleaning and the trucks travel more than 250,000 miles per year, the distance from here to the moon. Commonly available combination trucks could save almost 100,000 miles of truck travel annually, sharply reducing emissions.

No gas in new construction and major renovations

Natural gas use in homes is unnecessary and avoidable, an issue Brookline recently brought to the forefront. Gas stoves emit more than just CO2 – they can fill a home with toxins. The state is running a “no-new-gas installation” trial in 10 communities; Boston asked to be included, and with Cambridge’s housing boom, we should too.

Reinstitute a Public Works reuse center

Reduce, recycle, refuse, reuse, repurpose – the “Five Rs.” Sadly, public works eliminated “reuse” and “repurpose” when it eliminated a section for it at the Hampshire Street recycling yard. Many people have gotten books, cookware, kitchen equipment, tools and other useful items from reuse-repurpose tables, but now it all goes in the trash. More emphasis needs to be placed on “reuse and repurpose,” and the section should be reopened.

Parking permit fees based on fuel efficiency

Charging parking permit fees based on fuel efficiency – using the “combined EPA average” of a vehicle’s make and model as the base – is another idea discussed in numerous cities and towns. It could be structured to add significantly to the cost of driving an oversized, non-commercial vehicle in the city, and reward those significantly who choose EVs and hybrids.

I urge the council to consider adopting these measures as a start toward combating climate change.

Phillip Sego, Norfolk Street

Phillip Sego was an environmental advocate at the State House for 15 years.