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‘Not Easy’: Cambridge Struggles Toward Carbon Neutrality

Cambridge City Hall is located at 795 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge officials do not know whether the city is on track to meet state emission standards by 2030.
Cambridge City Hall is located at 795 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge officials do not know whether the city is on track to meet state emission standards by 2030. By Jessica C. Salley
By Avani B. Rai, Crimson Staff Writer

Cambridge officials do not know whether the city is on track to meet statewide emission standards by 2030 or a self-imposed goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, according to ​​Susanne Rasmussen, who presented the annual review of Cambridge’s Net Zero Action Plan to the City Council Wednesday.

At the meeting of the Council’s Health and Environment Committee — Rasmussen, the city director of environmental and transportation planning — said the city has not yet modeled the impact of the city’s climate policies since a 2023 report that analyzed data dating through 2020.

“We just have a difficult time actually seeing the outcome in the short term,” Rasmussen said of the city’s efforts to reduce emissions, responding to a question from Councilor Patty M. Nolan ’80.

“There’s just a time lag,” she added. “We can try to model it, but it’s not easy.”

The meeting focused primarily on ongoing efforts to increase energy efficiency in existing municipal and residential buildings and ensure net zero emissions for new construction ahead of a statewide 2030 deadline to see emissions decrease by 50 percent compared to 1990 levels.

As of 2019, Cambridge’s emissions had decreased by just 31 percent compared to 1990 levels.

The NZAP was first adopted by the City Council in 2015 with recommendations and strategies to reduce carbon emissions from building operations, which comprise 80 percent of the city’s total.

This past year, Cambridge’s initiatives to reduce carbon emissions have included a custom retrofit advisor program to increase energy efficiency in 12 buildings, the development of greenhouse gas reduction standards for buildings over 25,00 square feet, standardized targets for new construction aligned with state initiatives, and the promotion of off-site renewable electricity access.

But Nolan remained critical of the city’s efforts to reach residential buildings, specifically calling out the retrofit program, which has only been implemented in “about 0.8, tenths of 1 percent of our buildings.”

“If we do that every year, it’s going to be a century, you know, we’ll literally be underwater,” Nolan said.

Cambridge resident David G. Rabkin, who has served on the city’s Climate Committee for more than 15 years, also commented on the city’s slow progress.

“In the last 20 some years, we’ve done great work in Cambridge,” Rabkin said, “and yet, year after year, we haven’t reached the goals that we’ve set for ourselves for actually reducing city-wide emissions.”

“We can’t allow ourselves to slow down. We have to move quickly,” he added.

As the city moves forward in the final year before a second five-year review of its carbon neutrality practices, officials intend to implement a newly developed standardized targets plan, develop electrification support programs, and introduce performance standards for residential and small commercial buildings.

This continued commitment to promoting carbon neutrality is especially important, Nolan said, as the impacts of climate change largely fall on Cambridge’s most vulnerable.

“The urgency of the public health impacts are becoming more and more evident as experts point out that the burden of the climate crisis falls disproportionately on low income communities and marginalized communities,” she added.

—Staff writer Avani B. Rai can be reached at Follow her on X @avaniiiirai.

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