Boston is so far behind on climate progress that cutting greenhouse emissions in half by the critical milepost of 2030 is already out of reach, a new assessment has found, and reaching the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 will require a decades-long, all-in effort.
The report blamed a decade or more of stalled action at the city, state, and federal levels, and said that dramatic changes must now begin.
In a year that saw the hottest three-week period in 151 years of Boston records and just ahead of what is expected to be a record-hot weekend, the report, dubbed the Inaugural Boston Climate Progress Report, was seen as a jolt of reality.
“It is a call to action,” said report author Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. “But this city government can’t do this alone. ... Everyone has to be moving in lockstep to realize these goals.”
The report was issued Thursday by The Boston Foundation and was developed in partnership with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders working to address climate change. The authors examined existing scientific studies, past climate reports, and data from the city of Boston. They also conducted interviews with more than 50 experts.
The report found that emissions in Boston declined 21 percent between 2005 and 2019. Those declines happened at the same time that the city grew, with a 10 percent increase in total floor space and a 20 percent increase in driving.
While the reductions are meaningful, they fall far short of the massive changes necessary to meet the target of halving emissions by the end of the decade, a goal considered increasingly important worldwide in order to prevent the worst impacts of warming.
The report notes that the city is now at what may be a pivot point when progress could begin to move more quickly — with recent state and federal legislation on climate change and clean energy, a Boston mayor with a dedicated Green New Deal mission, and an impending change at the State House.
“We have a mayor who gets it — who feels the urgency and is taking steps — a very likely incoming governor who gets it; we have significant legislation,” said Amy Longsworth, executive director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. “Things are lined up in a way that they never have been before.”
To get back on track toward becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2050, the report’s authors found four key challenges that have to be overcome: electrifying the 70,000 single and small multifamily homes in the city; modernizing and expanding local electrical planning and the local electrical grid, while making it more resilient to extreme weather; making the coastline more resilient to rising seas and extreme weather; and prioritizing social justice and reparative planning alongside climate planning.
The report noted climate efforts underway in Boston, including the city’s BERDO 2.0 rule, which sets requirements for large buildings to reduce emissions, and its Community Choice Electricity Program, which allows residents to opt for 100 percent clean electricity. But what must happen now is a shift from incremental change to systemic change, the report said. “We just haven’t been acting in the way that we needed to to reach these ambitious climate targets,” said Michael Walsh, an author of the report and director of policy research at Groundwork Data, a think tank focused on helping cities use data to accelerate the clean energy transition.
On the electrification effort, for instance, just 100 heat pumps were permitted in Boston’s single-family, two-family, and three-family homes in 2021, Walsh said, when the city needs to be installing more like 10,000 a year.
Currently, rebates from the state’s Mass Save program are the main tool available for encouraging residents to install heat pumps. But the report cites obstacles for large numbers of Boston homeowners, including the high cost of heat pumps, which are often out of reach for moderate-income residents, even after rebates.
A move by Mayor Wu to include Boston in a state pilot program that would allow the city to ban the use of fossil fuels in new buildings is expected to drive an increase in home electrification, however it does not solve the problem of how to retrofit existing buildings, which the report said will require new policies, better data collection and workforce development.
A spokesperson for the Wu administration — which was among the dozens of stakeholders interviewed by the report’s authors — said the findings were no surprise. “This report reiterates what Bostonians already know — that climate change is an urgent and ever-present challenge that must be addressed with bold and innovative solutions,” he said. “As the City of Boston continues working to be the greenest and most family-friendly city in the country, climate change preparedness is embedded in every aspect of our work.”
The report’s authors note the significant role the private sector can play in the transition — either as an ally that helps drive progress, or as a hurdle.
One bright spot highlighted in the report is Boston University’s effort to procure renewable energy that matches its demands, and its new, gas-free 19-story building that is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. Another is downtown Boston’s steam provider, Vicinity Energy, which is working to electrify and recycle the steam used to power large buildings.
On the other side, the report notes that the lack of innovation in the private sector is a major barrier to change. “Despite commitments to net zero, organizations and interest groups have lobbied to slow the pace of electrification, while blatantly advocating for more costly, inequitable, and debunked false solutions,” the authors wrote.
The state, too, can be either a help or a hindrance, the authors said, because there is only so much the city can do on its own. One example of how things can go wrong, according to the report: In 2017, the city sought to develop a district energy system as part of the Flynn Marine Park redevelopment. But it required a legislative approval via a home rule petition, which it never received. The project was effectively killed, according to the report.
“The city has unfortunately run into roadblocks not of its own making, trying to develop and localize energy resources to meet the needs of a growing and developing city,” Walsh said.
The report also focuses on the need to increase social equity in Boston through climate action. María Belén Power, associate executive director of the environmental justice group GreenRoots, said the report did a good job of centering equity and environmental justice in its vision to get to net zero, but said it remains to be seen whether it happens.
“How are we going to make sure that what when homes are weatherized, retrofitted and electrified that that doesn’t hike up the rent, and then environmental justice populations get pushed out and displaced?” she said.