Sunday, June 23, 2024

We know the climate situation is dire. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report led the United Nations secretary general to plead for all rich countries to get to net zero by 2040 and net zero electricity generation by 2035. Cambridge is one of the richest cities in one of the richest states in the richest country in the world. And our city is home to some of the richest universities and biotech companies in the world. Cambridge is uniquely suited to take on this dire call to action. Net Zero by 2035 has to be doable for Cambridge. If we can’t get there, the world will not meet its goal of 2050. We can’t give up. There is a path for Cambridge to be a leader.

Cambridge has studied, planned and set goals for climate action for more than 20 years. Harvard and MIT have achieved reductions in their emissions pollution and have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2026. And in all the climate planning that the city does, the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance is cited as key to reducing our citywide emission pollution. Why? Because 80 percent of emissions in Cambridge comes from buildings.

The original Beudo ordinance passed in 2014 was supposed to lead to emissions reductions. It hasn’t. That is why we need to update it. Cambridge needs to reach our goals and be a true climate leader, not a laggard. We absolutely must get to net zero for all large properties by 2035, if not earlier. After all, climate scientists, the U.N. and the world are demanding that of us.

To meet this 2035 timeline, large property owners want the flexibility to buy carbon credits to offset their building emissions. That sounds reasonable, except red flag warning: The market for buying carbon credits to offset emissions is fraught with problems and not regulated on a global level. Concerns lead many climate leaders to be skeptical about their effectiveness as a means of reducing carbon emissions. Many carbon credits are at best unverifiable and at worst bogus – and worse for the environment. Global offsets especially are often double-counted, difficult to verify, impossible to confirm as permanent and/or fraudulent.

What’s a good alternative? Consistently over the past year as the council discussed proposed amendments, I insisted that since the emission pollution is local, only local offsets should be allowed. People countered “but there are no Cambridge Offsets.” I have proposed that we create local high-quality offsets – ones that are additive, verifiable, immediate and durable. How? My proposal is to allow any Cambridge property owner who can’t or won’t reduce their own emissions to get credit for reducing emissions of any affordable-housing project or any property serving environmental justice residents anywhere in Massachusetts. And we would define that reduction as an allowable offset.

For years, Cambridge has recommended and supported planning for a local carbon fund. Now is the time to implement it. Rather than continuing to just talk about the concept, study the prospect and consider the same ideas, we can and should implement our own solutions now. The state is considering a bill to establish a Zero Carbon Renovation Fund – if that bill or another one passes, we could decide to include that in our ordinance. Until then, we can and should lead the way by forming our own plan for local offsets.

Harvard and MIT agree. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Sterman, in a January article “How to choose carbon offsets that actually cut emissions,” ends with this example of high-quality offsets by retrofitting low-income-earner homes: “Such retrofits are therefore additional. The energy savings are verifiable from utility bills. Projects take about a year, so emissions reductions are nearly immediate. Good retrofits can significantly extend building life, so benefits are durable. Plus, retrofits create jobs, reduce energy bills and improve health.” Similarly, in 2018, Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson, co-chair of Harvard’s Climate Change Task Force, stated in a video that “Harvard should be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026. That means investing in wind plants in Texas or maybe insulating houses in Cambridge” – which is exactly what I am proposing we do.

One-third of renters in Massachusetts use electric heat, and landlords don’t have incentive to upgrade. There are enough low- and moderate-income properties in the state and in New England for every large property owner in Cambridge to be able to meet their reduction requirements by retrofitting those properties.

Let’s make it happen: sustainable, verifiable, permanent, impactful emission reductions. Let’s lead the way. Local offsets only in Beudo 2.0.


Patty Nolan is a Cambridge city councillor.