OUR HEALTH as a community is tied to the health of our environment and our planet. The stark reality however is that our future is not guaranteed. Climate change is no longer some far-off crisis we’re buckling up for – it’s here. And it’s an emergency. We don’t have time to be timid.
A large part of the climate change strategies employed by state governments to date have been to push the individual responsibility of its citizens for recycling, weatherizing homes, and installing heat pumps and solar panels to energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs. While important, the progress is much too slow: these are small solutions to an ever-growing problem. Most are aware that if we are to succeed, change must be rapid and industry too must meet this challenge at large-scale, but our other key opportunity is municipal change.
One of the biggest hurdles to sustainability success is the scale of the challenge and the need for action now. Collaboration and coordination among local jurisdictions are crucial to making progress. Big problems require big and bold solutions and this is the primary responsibility of government. There is a saying — where cities and towns go, nations follow. State governments must invest heavily and incentivize cities who can lead the type of big changes we need to address the climate crisis.
What does this mean?
Cities and towns can have a big impact in six significant and meaningful ways:
Regulation of building materials. Concrete is everywhere–in our homes, sidewalks, and schools. It’s a staple of construction. But despite all the utility it provides, recent studies indicate that the process of making concrete is responsible for a significant amount of worldwide carbon emissions. In the era of decarbonization, improved concrete production practices have to become part of the solution to climate change, and proper legislation can encode those practices into law via enhanced local building and zoning codes. Reducing embodied carbon – the greenhouse gas emissions produced by manufacturing, installing, maintaining, and disposing of building materials – will help us reach our climate goals while also supporting green workforce development.
Prohibiting fossil fuel hookups in new construction and major renovations. For several years now local climate-forward municipalities have asked the state to authorize the cities to establish a net zero emissions standard and create restrictions on fossil fuel use in buildings. While there is a pilot program (the Fossil Fuel Free Building Demonstration Program) we need to move faster and allow ALL climate leadership communities the ability to codify their home rule petitions into local bylaws and ordinances, prohibiting fossil fuel in buildings. Alternative fuel sources are ready to meet our needs, and continued state investment in green energy must ensure more communities can take similar action.
Accelerating energy efficiency and building electrification. In January, Somerville adopted the newly created Specialized Opt-in Stretch Energy Code, a state building energy code that requires stricter energy efficiency standards and more renewable energy generation in new construction. The specialized code – along with the state’s newly updated stretch energy code regulating new construction, additions, and alterations – positions Somerville to make significant progress in becoming net-zero carbon-negative by 2050. The state needs to support more communities in taking this step.
Prioritizing climate forward public infrastructure. Climate forward public infrastructure investments like public transit, bikeways and walking routes, and electric vehicle charging stations are key to achieving sustainability goals, and they support healthy and resilient neighborhoods and local economies. Resiliency to climate impacts to help protect people, homes, and businesses can be improved with strategic investments such as tree canopy growth or stormwater management. Local governments can best move these projects forward in cities and towns, but state and federal investment is critical. This support must quickly become easier for more communities to access.
Training the workforce needed for climate forward solutions: We need a workforce skilled to bring about these changes. Local schools, municipal governments, and local businesses must help prepare a growing green workforce with investments in STEM, municipal jobs focused on sustainability and resiliency, and pathways and mentorships in innovation, design, construction, installation, and maintenance. State investments in our schools, green incubators, and local workforce development initiatives must accelerate.
Using data to inform decisions about spending. This means putting our money where our values are. Passing budgets with unprecedented investments in sustainability and resiliency initiatives. In the year ahead, Somerville will update its climate action plan to guide the work and to ensure it is informed by the most recent, peer-reviewed climate change data. This effort will center our most vulnerable residents, who are most likely to bear the brunt of climate change impacts. We have active neighbors doing similar work in Boston, Cambridge, and more. The state however can best scale this rapidly across the Commonwealth with both policy and capacity supports.
The time for assuming we can solve the climate crisis as individuals is over. Cities are already leading in the green transition from storage in Holyoke, solar farms in Worchester, and wind turbines in New Bedford. Central Maine Power just passed an important hurdle to bring hydropower to Massachusetts and geothermal has the opportunity to supply more energy. Borders are permeable and cities are in the trenches and on the frontline of the impact of climate change and the solutions to solve the problem. Cities are capable and ready, now it is time for state governments and dollars to follow.
Katjana Ballantyne is the mayor of Somerville.