Addressing Climate Change Takes Big, Bold Steps – And We’re Starting to See Them

Earlier this month I hosted a panel discussion in Boston at a meeting of the New England chapter of ASAP, the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals, on the topic of, “Sustainable Development for Smart Cities: Collaboration and Innovation.” The exercise demonstrated both how far our cities have to go to address the issues of climate change and sustainability, and how it will take alliances to get there.

One of the panelists was Carl Spector who is Director of Climate and Environmental Planning for the City of Boston. He helped develop the Climate Change Plan for Boston back in 2007, which was updated in 2011 and will be updated yet again in 2014.

The City of Boston has a difficult job in its ambitious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The city appears to be on track for the 2020 goal based on what it can measure, Carl says. But another panelist, Judy Layzer, Associate Professor of Environmental Policy in the Dept. of Urban Studies at MIT, was skeptical as to whether the city was doing enough to combat climate change.

To reach the kind of goals Boston has admirably set for itself requires stakeholders to make big changes in the way they do things. Those stakeholders include not just city departments such as schools and public works, but area businesses, universities, entrepreneurs, citizen groups and individual citizens. It’s the job of Carl and his colleagues to get all of these folks, from both within and outside the city, to play along. In essence, that makes him an alliance manager, just like me.

His job is all the more difficult because the conclusion I heard from the other panelists was that those stakeholders are not ready to make big changes. In the end, there was some agreement that the city isn’t being bold enough in the changes it is suggesting because it doesn’t have the support of its citizens.

I asked the panel a simple question: Why is it that Europe is ahead on climate change, and even China is passing some regulations, but the U.S. is behind? No one really wanted to answer that one at the time. In reflecting on the question after the event, I think the answer is likewise simple: because the U.S. economy is more dependent on oil than other industrialized economies. We’re trying to move from an oil-based economy to a renewable, carbon-free economy – and it’s proving difficult.

Yet there are signs that we’re moving in the right direction. On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a major address focusing on climate change. Here are a few of his proposals, as reported at Boston.com:

By expanding permitting on public lands, Obama hopes to generate enough electricity from renewable energy projects such as wind and solar to power the equivalent of 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the electric capacity federal lands now produce, senior administration officials said. He’ll also set a goal to install 100 megawatts of energy-producing capacity at federal housing projects by the end of the decade.

Obama also announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.

But the linchpin of Obama’s plan is the controls on new and existing power plants. Forty percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and one-third of greenhouse gases overall, come from electric power plants, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The Obama administration already has proposed controls on new plants, but those controls have been delayed and not yet finalized.

Those are big, bold initiatives. As Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said after Obama’s speech:

“The president realizes that you can’t combat climate change without a direct confrontation with the fossil fuel industry,” Brune said in an interview. “What has us most encouraged by the president’s speech is he is lacing up his gloves and getting ready for that fight.”

The day before the president’s speech, the Boston Globe reported on another dramatic effort to curb climate change:

A group of environmentalists plans to ask voters to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to adopt a so-called carbon tax by imposing new levies on gasoline, heating oil, and other fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide they produce.

The group, which has registered with the state as a political committee, is launching a campaign to place the issue on the ballot for the 2014 state elections. If approved, such a tax would add several cents to the price per gallon of gas and could generate as much as $2.5 billion in revenue a year, according to an economic analysis that was done for the group, the Committee for a Green Economy.

The goal is to combat climate change by reducing consumption of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they produce when burned in cars, trucks, and heating systems. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide are accelerating climate change and the chances of environmental disaster, scientists say.

A carbon tax is absolutely a good idea, as it’s an effective tool to both discourage use of carbon-based fuels and to fund green energy projects. While a carbon tax at the federal level would undoubtedly be more effective, it’s encouraging to see folks taking bold steps like these to address the climate change issue.

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