City Announces Wide-sweeping Climate Action Plan

bikesPhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

The city has released Somerville Climate Forward, a broad-reaching plan to reduce its contributions to climate change and prepare for the effects of global warming.

The plan’s goals are lofty: “We have to turn transportation and heating and cooling into electricity, and then that electricity needs to be 100 percent renewable,” says Oliver Sellers-Garcia, director of the Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE). “And all the while, we are going to be dealing with a very different flooding and heat landscape.”

For a city that often puts together 20- or 30-year plans, the five- to 10-year scope of Somerville Climate Forward highlights the need to act immediately on climate change. The city will start working on the plan’s objectives right away, according to the OSE, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Zero Net Energy Buildings

All graphics courtesy of Somerville Climate Forward.

The city’s goal is for future buildings to create essentially no greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings currently make up about two-thirds of all emissions in the city, according to the Somerville Climate Forward plan.

Zero net energy buildings can achieve their status in several ways, the plan explains, including solar panels, ground source heat pumps, and carbon offset programs.

The goal is complicated, Sustainability Coordinator Hannah Payne says, by the fact that Somerville can’t create its own building code—and the state’s code is less strict than what’s necessary to achieve the Somerville Climate Forward plan’s goals.

Because of this roadblock, the plan’s approaches include incentivizing net-zero buildings, making zoning changes, and trying to change the state building code. Similar approaches will be needed to ensure buildings can handle the rising temperatures and increased flooding that are projected effects of climate change.

Regulation is also a challenge for existing buildings, which are typically exempt from building code changes, the plan explains. The issue is further complicated by the city’s large population of renters, who don’t have control over their homes’ insulation or energy systems.

Somerville Climate Forward suggests creating an energy disclosure mandate, which would involve telling tenants estimated energy costs during the lease process. “Such a disclosure would also hopefully encourage landlords to make upgrades in order to keep their units competitive,” the plan reads.

“Education and incentives” can also be used to coax owners into using fossil fuel-free electricity instead of oil or natural gas heating, the plan proposes. The city will continue to push HeatSmart/CoolSmart—its air source heat pump program that transfers heat in or out of a home depending on the season—and the 100 percent renewable energy Community Choice Electricity program, the OSE says.

Public and Electric Transportation

Transportation accounts for about one-third of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Somerville Climate Forward plan. To target transportation’s effect on the environment, city officials aim to reduce car use and encourage a switch to electric vehicles.

Encouraging public transportation, biking, and walking means making sure buses are reliable and that roads are safe for pedestrians and walkers. The city will also analyze where it can cut on-street parking to free up valuable space that could be used for designated bike or bus lanes.

Sellers-Garcia says the city will install new electric vehicle charging stations. The installations will be strategic, however—rather than placing stations in areas like Davis Square that are connected to public transportation, the charging stations will likely end up in residential areas to let people charge their cars at home.

“There is a lot of evidence that the main concern in switching to an electric vehicle is range anxiety, and then the next thing is, ‘How am I going to charge the car?’” Sellers-Garcia says. “So technology and car companies are going to take care of range anxiety, there’s not too much that we can do there, but we can really facilitate charging in the places people need it, so that they see, ‘Oh, there’s a place that I can charge my car, even though I don’t have a driveway and I rent, this might actually work for me.’”

Preparation and Resiliency

The main effects of climate change that Somerville is expected to see are flooding from the Mystic River, flooding from heavier rainfall, and extreme heat, according to Payne.

The city will work with neighboring communities—including Medford, Cambridge, Boston, and Everett—to find solutions to Mystic River flooding, Payne says. A state grant is funding research into Somerville’s stormwater infrastructure so the city can determine how to be resilient in the face of worsening storms.

“When we have a storm, we’ll have more precipitation, so that really puts a strain on our stormwater system,” Payne says.

Another OSE priority is to build up Somerville’s tree canopy to maximize its cooling effect, Payne and Sellers-Garcia say.

When it comes to residents and building owners, OSE staff say that communication, education, and what the plan calls a “culture of climate action” are top concerns. Payne and Sellers-Garcia hope to get many residents involved in the community outreach and committees that will spin out of the Somerville Climate Forward plan. They also note that education will prepare people for the effects of climate change and help them make informed decisions about their homes and habits.

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