Climate Change in Cambridge and How to Stop It

Climate Change in Cambridge and How to Stop It


The simple maxim about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, attributed to Aristotle and several modern thinkers, may be an underrated kernel of wisdom, one which often resists enactment. Our age of hyper-specialization creates information stove-pipes, such as brought the financial industry to the brink in 2008, obstructing a view of the forest in favor of focus on separate trees.

Amory Lovins , prominent scientist in Sustainability, in 2010 introduced the concept "whole system design" as an organizing principle for efforts in clean energy. He argued that concentration on disparate components of the multi-faceted enterprise could undermine the effectiveness of the complete system. Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank believe that the whole systems approach to planning green buildings can be successfully extended to Sustainability schemes in a municipality or region.

The closest example of environmental systems thinking in Cambridge may be the Climate Protection Action Committee (CPAC), a public forum for initiatives to counteract global warming. Established after City Council adoption of the 2002 Climate Protection Plan, the CPAC has served as advisory body to the City Manager on reduction of the Cambridge’s carbon footprint. Although interest in this agenda has ebbed and flowed with tides of economy and technology, the committee over ten years of activity has filled a useful consultative and, to an extent, coordinating function.


Unlike land-locked cities, Cambridge is vulnerable to rising waters of the Charles River tidal basin which could result from global warming. The environmental agenda of the city has thus been framed as "climate protection" instead of the broader Sustainability concept. An inventory of city greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) underpinned the 2002 plan, which outlined a program of carbon abatement from energy inefficiencies in buildings, transportation and waste management. Also proposed was increased sourcing of renewables for electric power with reduction of GHG by 20% from 1990 levels by 2010 as a central goal. The role of CPAC was review and stimulation of progress by way of public meetings, newsletters and periodic reports.

CPAC's 2011 Action Status Report addressed achievements and setbacks in the 2002 goals. citing changes in local conditions and technical know-how. The document underscored the city’s initiative in sponsoring the Cambridge Energy Alliance in 2007, a public- private partnership designed to implement a coordinated program. CPAC proposed adaptations and amendments in priorities, notable among which were a building energy labeling system and an electric vehicle-charging infrastructure. The committee’s twenty eight members are appointed by City Manager from among city residents, institutional and business leaders as well as city officials. Monthly meetings offer opportunities community groups, state agencies, utility companies and Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) to present their programs.


The May 10th meeting, for example, heard reports of three agencies from the business sector: the Chamber of Commerce, the Sustainable Business Network and A better City’s Challenge for Sustainability. On April 12th there were presentations by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center on their solar energy schemes for homeowners. The utility NSTAR solicited ideas for improving acceptance the company's Green Program of power generated by renewables. The CPAC gathering on February 9th heard accounts of five neighborhood groups on their actions to promote climate change awareness. Proposals reviewed in CPAC meetings are passed along to city departments for consideration.

During the recent recession Cambridge’s economic performance, measured by employment, household income, city services and balance sheet exceeded that most U.S. cities. The impressive outcomes are arguably the result of effective governance and institutional framework. In the climate change and sustainability spheres, however, the city’s record has been mixed. The current fragmented array of programs does include alternative fuels for the city's vehicle fleet, energy management workshop for city owned facilities, a green building policy for design and construction standards, transportation demand management, urban forestry and waste management. The ambitious 2007 launch of the comprehensive Cambridge Energy Alliance fell short of expectations, leaving the city without a coordinated systems solution.


2009 and 2010 case studies by the MIT Energy Efficiency Strategy Project have identified mid-sized municipalities where enabling policies and program partnerships have integrated efforts of disparate agencies and firms for positive results. The Austin Conservation Audit ad Disclosure Ordinance and Clean Energy Works Portland (Oregon) stand out as constructive models.

REINVENTING FIRE, a monumental, exhaustively researched 2011 volume on energy innovation by the Rocky Mountain Institute seeks to cast the private sector as the driver of progress. At the same time the authors recognize the instrumental role of government and NGOs for regulatory, technical and funding support of a holistic strategy.

The insightful 2011 study SYSTEMS APPROACH TO ENERGY TRANSITIONS by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future proposes a framework for displacing the dominant polarization of strategic choices. It argues for a shift from independent assessments of components to an accounting for interactions among relevant factors, applying the scheme to shale gas development in the northeastern states.

Finally, a team of policy experts at three Washington think tanks (Brookings, Breakthrough and World Resources Institutes) in April 2012 issued their BEYOND BOOM AND BUST report about placing clean tech on a path to subsidy independence. Anticipating steep cuts this year in 2009 federal stimulus funding for energy innovation the authors endorse tight collaboration between policy makers and industry for reform of the nation’s haphazard energy strategy. They outline an agenda for government initiatives to incentivise development of cost competitive renewables by industry.


In 2010 Cambridge in was one of eight U.S. cities designated by the International Council of Local Environment Initiatives as inaugural communities for the Climate Resilient Communities program. The plan enables climate change vulnerability assessments and prevention plans with use of technical support from the Council. The selection undoubtedly recognized the usefulness of the city's initiatives, coordinated in part thorough the platform offered by CPAC.

On the other hand, from 1990 to 2010 GHG emissions in Cambridge in fact increased by 29%, from 1.68 to 2.16 million tons of eCO2 per annum (see table bellow). Moving closer to city’s climate protection goals may require a stronger systems process integrating resources and authority of government with financial and operating capacity of the private sector. Lesson learned from the flawed Cambridge Energy Alliance can offer perspective. A growing number of functional public-private partnerships for Sustainability, both in the U.S. and abroad, should provide models for study, adaption and enactment. The emerging benefit-hybrid companies which integrate market gain with social value can also be harnessed.



(Source: City of Cambridge official website.)

Image icon Cambclimstats.jpg37.61 KB
Image icon Table 1.jpg73.11 KB


Thanks, Andrew, for bringing us up to date on what Cambridge has been trying to do in this important arena. Climate change is the single most important problem we face, but we are too distracted by day-to-day issues and too divided in our attitudes to come to terms with it. As a result things get worse while we do essentially nothing. It's important to keep putting this issue before people's eyes -- will look forward to hearing more.

It does seem as if industry is the biggest culprit here but there are things we have to create and things that people need on a daily basis. There needs to be a happy medium for all involved.

For some reason people always blame everything on the industry as if they don't want new products or don't want to use a Website Builder but there are good ways to do better.