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Boston not on track to reach carbon reduction goals, new report finds

A view of the hazy Boston skyline on July 21, 2021. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A view of the hazy Boston skyline on July 21, 2021. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The largest city in Massachusetts is not on pace to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, according to Northeastern University researchers, who describe Boston's goal as "likely out of reach" in a new report.

The Boston Foundation's Inaugural Boston Climate Progress Report says an "immediate pivot" is needed to get the city back on track and to achieve the goal of making Boston a "carbon-neutral city" by 2050.

Calling for "more systemic changes," researchers found the city has "only achieved incremental improvement" through a cleaner grid, more energy efficient buildings, oil-to-gas heating system conversions and improvements in vehicle efficiency.

"A decade of inaction by everyone locked Boston into a pathway that will result in it missing its 2030 goals and places its 2050 net-zero goal at risk," Michael Walsh, a decarbonization consultant and one of the report's authors, said at a webinar Thursday morning.

The report identifies outcomes needed for Boston to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, including an obligation for the city to be supplied with electricity from renewable and low-carbon resources, the phaseout of non-zero emissions vehicles, and more housing near transit to help "prioritize the needs of people over vehicles."

Reducing emissions will require nearly eliminating fossil fuels in Boston's buildings and significantly reducing the amount of waste people produce, the report says.

Boston also needs to make investments to improve and increase public transit use, better protect coastal areas, manage stormwater and protect residents from extreme heat, the report said.

The report celebrates the city's move to electrify some transit and school bus fleets, but stresses the need for charging infrastructure. The city is partnering with Eversource's Make Ready program to install public chargers at municipal lots and has required the installation of electrical vehicle chargers on large new developments with parking.

Though it strongly urges Boston to move toward electric energy, the report also identifies "targeted and modest use of fossil and alternative fuels."

"Deploying wind, solar, and electrification achieves mitigation goals by displacing fossil fuel use. However, fuels are needed to support low-cost energy reliability when solar and wind production is insufficient," it says.

Another of the identified priorities is protecting Boston's coastlines — which are largely privately owned, making it difficult for the city to enforce protections.

Joan Fitzgerald, one of the report's authors, said the city's Wharf District Council, a public/private partnership working on a design for a district-wide coastal barrier for downtown Boston, illustrates how these partnerships can "move from protection at the property level to the district level."

"Developing processes to engage communities, property owners, state agencies, etc., is a first step in streamlining processes and giving the city more control over how its coastline is protected," Fitzgerald said.

Between 2005 and 2019, Boston's accounted greenhouse gas emissions declined by about 21 percent, driven by the near-complete elimination of coal from the New England electricity supply in favor of natural gas, the report says. However, there was a 10 percent increase in the built environment and 20 percent increase in driving over the same period.

Ted Landsmark, director of Northeastern University's Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and member of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said the city has had to balance climate change goals against the city's need for revenue to fund schools, libraries and public programs.

"We balance that against the developments that sometimes haven't always met the expectations one would hope for in terms of resilience and in terms of their ability to have a positive impact on the environment," Landsmark said.

The report was assembled by researchers at the Dukakis Center and Boston Foundation officials said they plan to update it every two years to assess the city's progress toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

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