Opinion: Local And Green – Climate Activists Pushing The Boundaries In Massachusetts
This column appeared previously in the Amherst Bulletin.
Fueled by the recently reported acceleration of climate change and the passage of sweeping federal climate legislation, Massachusetts climate action advocacy is taking off. Add to that the election of a governor who is “woke” to climate action, and we have a recipe for success on the state and local level.
Coalitions of advocates from around the state working on the same issues have popped up, with cooperation and sharing of information and tactics abounding. And webinars! So many webinars presented by so many local and national experts — bringing together hundreds of folks anxious to move forward, working together.
One of the most forward-thinking municipalities is Brookline. Last month, Brookline Town Meeting passed a package of legislation requesting sweeping climate authority from the Massachusetts Legislature to support building electrification. Their Municipal Climate Empowerment Plan legislation follows the city’s previous effort to ban the installation of new fossil fuel infrastructure (mostly natural gas lines) in major construction projects.
The newly enacted package attempts to wrest authority from the Legislature in five areas to:
Empower gas utilities to unlock investment in electrification and energy storage.
- Impose a progressive methane tax — the first of its kind.
- Expand municipal authority over electricity, enabling community choice aggregation programs to support electrification and help reduce the cost of electricity.
- Provide low interest municipal loans to finance electrification, modeled on the state’s existing septic betterment program.
- Impose sustainable building standards in the form of zoning bylaws even if they exceed those mentioned in the building code.
The elements of the Brookline package would create the tools to help residents switch to clean, electric-powered cars and homes. When a boiler or hot water heater needs replacement, incentives would encourage them to move away from fossil fuels and to electrify their heating and hot water. Plus, the legislation provides incentives to move from gas stoves to induction stoves, thereby limiting another source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The methane tax legislation sought by Brookline would allow any Massachusetts municipality to enact local legislation that would add a gas utility surcharge to gas bills, money that would then be used to fund programs promoting emissions reductions, with low income exemptions available.
Another piece of the Brookline package would allow the town to adopt zoning bylaws that are more progressive — and greenhouse-gas reducing — than the state building code. Legislation was recently passed allowing 10 communities to pilot such a building code, chosen on a first-come, first-served basis, including Acton, Aquinnah, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington and Lincoln. Arlington and Newton will also join as long as they attain an affordable housing requirement in the law. The remaining city will be either Boston or Somerville, replacing West Tisbury, which withdrew.
A coalition of cities and towns, led by the Brookline-based ZeroCarbonMA, is challenging the limitation of the pilot program to 10 municipalities — and asking towns to pass home rule petitions before the spring of 2023 to request to opt into the program.
Other American cities including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Ithaca, New York, have started the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector by requiring some combination of electric-powered heat, appliances and hot water in construction or renovation, rather than natural gas or oil.
As with Brookline, we in Amherst are hoping to enable our upcoming Valley Green Energy Community Choice Aggregation to support electrification of homes and cars and to source that electricity with an ever increasing amount of renewable energy.
Local Energy Advocates of Western MA has also recently funded a soon-to-be-launched Induction Cookstove Lending Library program with co-sponsors Mothers Out Front and the Center for Eco-Technology. The goal is to provide opportunities for folks who use gas stoves to borrow a kit and try out an induction cooktop — with the hope that they will transition to purchasing one. Local libraries, including the Jones, Forbes, and Lilly libraries in Amherst and Northampton, are anticipated to host.
Our own Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee has started an education series for residents including presentations and question-and-answer sessions on such issues as switching to heat pumps.
Along with this exciting rise in advocacy, we will also receive the huge boost in funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act. More advocacy and more money! Advocates not just pushing harder but pushing the boundaries. New energy and new funding is putting climate action on the fast track where it belongs.
Darcy DuMont is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance. As a town councilor, she sponsored the legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee.