Sustainable cities: Case study 2

Boston, MA (population of 684,012 as of 2020)

Addressing climate change has been a top priority for Boston since 2014. Boston released a new Climate Action Plan in 2019 that details the specific actions they will take over the coming five years to significantly cut the emissions across all sectors of city life to become carbon neutral by 2050. Boston, along with New York City, was ranked at the top as energy-efficient US Cities (City of Boston, Climate Action Plan, 2019).

Carbon neutrality refers to releasing a net carbon footprint of zero on an annual basis. For Boston, this means reducing carbon emissions from buildings, transportation, waste, and energy supply as much as possible, and supporting activities that remove carbon from the atmosphere (carbon offsets) to compensate for any remaining emissions. According to the Carbon Free Boston analysis, Boston can eliminate up to 90 percent of carbon emissions using existing technologies (Carbon Free Boston, Summary Report 2019).

Boston set the following main goals as part of its climate plan:

- Mitigation: Achieve carbon neutrality by 2050

- Adaptation: prepare for uncertainties due to increasing climate events

- Mobility: make city widely accessible by public transport, on foot or by bike

- Waste reduction: become a zero-waste community and reach recycling goals at 80%

- Connected communities: enhance connectivity for people to thrive in the new world

Mitigation: Large buildings to achieve net-zero goals by 2050

Boston requires all large commercial buildings in the city to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. Buildings account for over 70% of carbon emissions in the city. This aggressive goal is a critical part of achieving carbon neutrality. The city is also developing performance standards for all existing buildings to report their annual emissions and meet standards for emission reduction. It can be achieved through energy efficiency, on-site renewable energy generation, and clean energy procurement (“Boston zoning change would require net-zero emissions from new buildings,” Renewable Energy World).

Mobility: in the transportation sector, the City of Boston released a Zero Emission Vehicle Roadmap, a strategy to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles (EV) and other zero-emission transportation. The Boston Transportation Department is installing publicly accessible EV charging stations in municipal lots with the goal to have them available in every neighborhood by 2023. (Boston’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Roadmap released, City of Boston)

Zero-waste: Boston launched a new committee that identified opportunities to reduce waste by 80% in support of the overall climate action efforts. This plan contains several strategies including public education, repair, and reuse strategies, reduction of packaging, an increase of composting, focus on more recycling and inspire technological, product and business model innovation to get to zero waste. (Zero Waste Boston recommendations, City of Boston)

Energy: Community Choice Electricity program uses the city’s collective buying power to provide affordable and renewable electricity to the customers. CCE ensures that energy decisions are made locally and support the needs of Boston’s communities (“Community Choice Electricity,” City of Boston). Another initiative, Renew Boston Trust (RBT) uses the money saved on energy bills to invest in energy efficiency upgrades for municipal buildings. It helps reduce energy use, save money, and reduce the city’s impact on climate change. In its first year, RBT is estimated to save approximately $680,000 (“City of Boston completes $11m investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades across 14 city buildings.” City of Boston).

Community Engagement: Community Clean Air Grants program enables funding community-based projects to reduce air pollution and support public health. Enhanced community engagement seeks to integrate residents in the City’s policies and facilitate public comment for regulations-making processes. Transitioning many key aspects of the City’s life to fight climate change requires joint efforts — government, institutions, businesses, and individuals — all must participate. Climate action will require people and organizations to adopt new behaviors and new ways of thinking, achievable as community-wide responsibility (“Community Engagement Strategy.” City of Boston).

City of Boston has outlined 18 strategies to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and transportation tracking and reporting progress on a regular basis. Figure 4 shows the progress at the strategy level as of October 2021:

Figure 4: Boston Climate Action Plan — Progress, City of Boston

Unique elements that position Boston as a leader in reaching net-zero goals:

- Boston Innovation Hub encouraged the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem to deliver new innovative solutions related to climate change, renewable energy and storage, artificial intelligence, data-driven solutions, weather intelligence, and others.

- Get started early and have commitments from the highest levels.

- Stade-wide partnerships and cooperation with other municipal leaders at the national level.

- Strong support from the finance and business community. Boston’s investment community sustains a long-term horizon on investments which allows startups to deliver new innovative solutions and achieve maturity of complex technology for future scale.

- Transparency in setting goals and reporting on progress.

This is a case study for the main article, Leading Strategies of the Most Energy-Efficient Cities.

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Julia A. Graf

Big data executive, impact investor, champion for a sustainable future