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IDEAS

Speed up the race to net-zero carbon emissions

Rahul Yarala, executive director of the Wind Technology Testing Center, talks with senior electronics technician Tim Boyd at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in Charlestown.Globe staff photo / Bill Greene/Boston Globe
Heather Hopp-Bruce

2050.

That’s the target date by which Boston and the Commonwealth hope to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

Can’t we accelerate that? I’d like to see a statewide Race to Net Zero that draws cities and towns across the state to focus on the things that have the greatest impact on shrinking their environmental footprints.

Here are the two things we could do to make it happen.

The first is to create a sense of competition and idea sharing. Let’s have the biggest cities in Massachusetts all get a baseline of their emissions using the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories, or GPC. Once a year, cities would report on the initiatives that were having the greatest impact on lowering emissions. Is it retrofitting schools and civic buildings with cleaner heating systems? Or investing in microgrids and battery storage, so that we can bring more renewable power into cities? Or something else altogether? The governor would bestow a Commonwealth Fast-Mover award on the city getting businesses, government, and citizens to make the most progress. When I ran this idea by Alicia Barton, CEO of the renewable power company FirstLight Power, she called it a “race to the top.” A website and regular in-person conclaves would help to highlight the best initiatives and encourage all cities to adopt them.

The second is to create a pool of funding that would support government agencies that are willing to pilot new approaches to basic “blocking and tackling” tasks — like insulating buildings, preventing energy waste, and fixing leaky gas pipes — and take chances on new technologies that are still emerging. As venture capitalist Carmichael Roberts says, local governments “can prime the pump for the commercialization of important technologies by being an early adopter.” Roberts is one of the people who lead investments for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, which is putting $2 billion into companies developing nuclear fusion reactors and lower-emission ways to produce steel, among other things.

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Massachusetts loves competition, and we’ve always been a hotbed of innovation. Tying these two dynamics together could build momentum for net-zero emissions on a more urgent schedule, which the climate crisis truly requires.

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Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.