One morning in April, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu gathered students, city workers, and TV cameras in a school garage in Roxbury to announce the city would replace its entire school bus fleet with electric vehicles by 2030, starting with 20 for this academic year, and launch a training program for EV maintenance.
For a new mayor elected on a platform of environmental justice, it was much to brag about: a step toward decreasing climate-warming pollution within Boston and creating green jobs, with a training program housed at a school that serves mostly students of color.
But some were skeptical.
Just minutes after Wu’s enthusiastic presentation, the director of maintenance for the city’s vehicle fleet, Bill Coughlin, stepped to the podium and warned, “2030 might be a stretch.” He turned to look at the mayor, who laughed behind her mask and churned her arms with a “let’s get to it!” cheer.
“But we will try,” he added. “We will do our very best.”
Nine months ago, Wu swept into office with the hopes of the national climate movement on her shoulders, promising to make radical shifts even in this change-resistant city, innovations that would create a template for transformation elsewhere. But well into her first year, making progress has proved challenging. Though she has won widespread praise for a litany of new initiatives, many achievements are modest — announcements of pilot programs and small bites out of bigger problems.
Climate advocates say the efforts demonstrate a refreshing commitment to equity and the environment. They praise her for doing more, sooner, than any Boston mayor before her, and for incorporating the climate into major decisions.
But the real test will be building out those initial steps into full and lasting programs — getting from 20 buses to an entire fleet.
Well into Wu’s first term, it’s not yet clear how she intends to do that. She has only recently hired her top Green New Deal adviser, and her administration has yet to set a comprehensive set of climate goals, such as when the city will zero out its own carbon emissions. Some advocates say she hasn’t acted quickly enough to tackle the city’s largest source of greenhouse emissions, the fossil fuel that heats most homes and commercial buildings. Even some of her most loyal supporters say she is moving more slowly than they hoped, stoking fears that the promise of radical change will yield to just incremental progress as it so often has in this city.
“I think there are a tremendous number of great ideas and plans, and not much completed at this point,” said Robert Tumposky, a member of the climate activism group 350 Mass Boston node, which has been a strong supporter of Wu.
All kinds of obstacles — financial, technological, and bureaucratic — have stalled efforts as broad as distributing solar energy credits to tens of thousands of low-income households and as personal as replacing the gas-guzzling SUV that drives the mayor around the city. Wu’s climate initiatives have also had to compete with other emergencies: a winter COVID-19 surge, a homelessness and addiction crisis, a threatened state takeover over the public schools, and vacancies atop the school, police, and planning departments.
Wu said she is determined to push through those obstacles. But she is the first to acknowledge she is not satisfied with her pace.
“My metric is: Are we doing everything that we could possibly do with the authority, resources, and community partners that we have?” Wu said in a recent interview. “The answer is no.”
Wu was overwhelmingly elected last year on the platform of a Green New Deal, a framework popularized by progressives in Congress that calls for combating the climate crisis while growing the economy and addressing social inequities. But the Green New Deal is a concept, not a plan. It envisions walkable communities, homes and businesses that no longer burn fossil fuel, and a thriving clean energy industry that provides jobs for marginalized communities. Turning that vision into reality requires meticulous planning and transformative shifts in policy, though, and advocates say Wu is missing those so far.
Of course, there are many first steps Wu can point to: She’s implementing a requirement to force the city’s biggest climate polluters to slash emissions, hiring more arborists to care for the city’s trees, launching a green jobs program for city youth, and divesting Boston from fossil fuels. When it comes to planning along Boston’s waterfront, Wu is prioritizing East Boston, a home to many immigrants that has often been overlooked.
And most recently, on Tuesday, she announced her intent to ban fossil fuels in new buildings.
Some who question Wu’s progress say her announcements often come with ambitious goals for the future but no clear path for achieving them. For example, in March, the city replaced an old-fashioned-style gas lamp in Bay Village with an LED version, the first step to eliminating thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted by gas street lamps every year. Months later, just seven gas lamps have been replaced, and the city has no immediate plans to retrofit the roughly 2,800 others.
And the city has yet to answer other important questions: Where will it find tens of millions of dollars to buy hundreds more electric school buses? In a city made more walkable and bikeable by a Green New Deal, how many school buses will Boston even need?
Wu said she is betting that the small efforts, even if some appear to fall short of the longer-term goals, can prove big things are possible.
“How do we see the results — some results — right away, every day?” Wu said. “Twenty buses change the conversation around what’s possible.”
Boston recently purchased two electric street sweepers to learn what it would take — in terms of chargers, maintenance, and other support — to replace the fleet of about 20. Wu launched a composting pilot program for 10,000 homes, aiming to add 10,000 or more every year. She made three bus routes fare-free for two years, the first step in her vision for an entirely free regional public transit system.
In a similar vein, Wu will use $20 million of COVID recovery funds to make Boston homes more energy efficient. That’s a fraction of what it would take to retrofit every old home in Boston. But Mariama White-Hammond, Wu’s environment chief, said she hopes the city will be better positioned to get more federal and state money if it can show those efforts are feasible here.
It matters, several environmental advocates said, that Wu does not miss an opportunity to emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis and the injustice of environmental racism. And it matters that she has not been, as one former city official put it, paralyzed by “the big problem.”
“You can’t point to huge, transformative changes yet,” said Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability at Northeastern University who has studied Green New Deal proposals. “But the vision and the approach is transformative, and that’s, I think, the really important piece here.”
Some advocates said they are optimistic Wu’s efforts could accelerate now that she has filled her Cabinet with the hire last week of Oliver Sellers-Garcia as Green New Deal senior adviser.
“You’ve got to get that team under you to be able to execute on your agenda,” said Kathy Abbott, who heads the waterfront-focused group Boston Harbor Now. Abbott has already been “incredibly impressed” with what Wu’s achieved; now, she said, “I think we’re going to see things really start to pick up.”
Still, some climate advocates and experts say, it can be difficult to see what all Wu’s small steps add up to.
“At the end of the day, you’ll be judged by what you actually get done,” said Alicia Barton, chief executive of FirstLight Power and the former chief executive of state clean energy agencies in New York and Massachusetts. Barton praised Wu’s efforts so far, but cautioned, “You can’t do everything all at once. It really is a risk that by focusing on everything, you will fail to accomplish enough things.”
As a candidate for mayor, Wu laid the groundwork for a Green New Deal in a 49-page campaign plan that included sweeping language and ambitious goals promising net zero municipal emissions by 2024 and 100 percent renewable electricity for the entire city by 2030.
But nine months into Wu’s term, Boston’s official climate goals still follow the less ambitious timeframe set under former mayor Martin J. Walsh, which called for citywide carbon neutrality by 2050, a decade later than the milestone Wu had set in her Green New Deal plan. And Wu has yet to commit to new goals, or even determine which metrics she’ll use to gauge Boston’s progress.
In part that’s because she struggled for months to hire a Green New Deal senior adviser, largely because there was no obvious well of candidates for a job whose scope had little precedent in other cities. The delay came at a cost, with parts of her environmental agenda on pause, advocates said.
And with so much out of the mayor’s control — from a state-run MBTA to personal decisions such as what kind of cars people buy — critics say she has not been aggressive enough on tackling something she can control: the on-site burning of fossil fuels in buildings, which are responsible for 30 percent of emissions in Boston. Advocates said they would like to see her moving faster to get existing buildings off fossil fuels, a massive challenge, but one that provides the opportunity to train a new workforce.
As part of a new climate bill state lawmakers passed this summer, a number of Massachusetts communities will be allowed to ban fossil fuels from new construction. Legislators say Wu waited too long to get Boston in line to be one of the communities and risks seeing other municipalities, such as Cambridge, get picked instead.
“Boston’s only real leadership opportunity lies in pioneering emissions reductions in buildings, and now it’s at risk of being eclipsed by the city of Cambridge and other Massachusetts municipalities willing to get out front,” said state Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington who was one of the lead negotiators of the new climate bill.
One of Wu’s challenges in moving quickly is that she wants to rethink environmental and equity goals entirely, so they have the broadest reach possible. Of course Boston should be limiting its greenhouse gas emissions, Wu said, but then asked whether the city should also be measuring the “number of households that are eligible for energy retrofits who we have reached? Or the percentage of buildings with potential for solar that we have gone in and helped connect? Or miles of bike lane?”
She hopes that such broad thinking, especially with Sellers-Garcia now at the helm, will result in a comprehensive plan. But her ambition is a double-edged sword. It may also mean that Boston’s Green New Deal mayor passes her first year in office without setting new climate goals at all.
And while that planning continues, climate advocates say, the city is still taking steps that could undermine its highest aspirations.
For example, dozens of school buildings have decades-old heating and cooling systems — some as much as 70 years old — with many in urgent need of renovations or repairs.
Wu said in her campaign plan she wanted to zero out emissions from city buildings by 2024. But her Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools does not commit to using only electric systems that would not rely on fossil fuels. That means if an old system fails this year, the city will likely replace it with a fossil fuel appliance that will emit greenhouse gasses, albeit in lower quantities, for decades to come.
City officials point out that it’s not a simple matter of swapping an electric system for a fossil fuel one, and said they may revise guidelines for new heating systems in 12 to 18 months when they release broader plans for school buildings.
Environmental advocates fear the city is settling for lower emissions, when it should be trying to eliminate them entirely.
“They’re saying ‘kids deserve energy efficient buildings,’ and I’m like yes, and they also deserve buildings that do not undermine their future by their very operation,” said Sara Ross, cofounder of the national nonprofit UndauntedK12, which helps public schools get off fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, Wu’s rock-solid support from environmental advocacy groups may be cracking. The Boston Cyclists Union charges she hasn’t done enough yet on bike lanes on treacherous Beacon Hill streets; some environmentalists slammed the city for cutting down trees in Malcolm X Park, and others demand she step in to prevent developers from building hundreds of homes in Crane Ledge Woods, a 14-acre patch of forest in Hyde Park that neighbors want preserved as green space.
There are signs of impatience among activists: They want bigger swings sooner, and fret that precious time was lost as Wu, and her most ambitious plans, awaited the arrival of a Green New Deal adviser.
As criticisms of the mayor increase in volume, it may still be Wu herself who is most frustrated. As she advocates for broad-based transformation, she has also been stymied so far from making a simple change to her daily ride.
When she took office, Wu made clear she wanted the mayor’s armored SUV to be replaced with an electric vehicle. She was dismayed to learn that no such car existed.
Her team reached out to major manufacturers about their production timelines for a seven-seat electric vehicle that would meet their specifications. Not one company would be producing one any time soon. So the city issued a targeted request for proposals, hoping to spark inspiration. No pitches came in.
No matter, Wu figured, there is always another way. Earlier this month, she biked to work for the first time. And after months of a frustration over the city-assigned SUV that boasts just 17 miles per gallon, Wu recently decided to downsize to a smaller electric vehicle: a 2022 Ford Mustang Mach-E that will be outfitted with police lights, sirens, and radio.