Thursday, July 29, 2010

Define reducing carbon footprint

Mayor Warren told the newly convened Transportation Advisory Committee, that its mission is to help the city figure out how to reduce its carbon footprint. Completely the right goal, but it has to be very carefully defined.

Are we trying to reduce Newton's overall carbon footprint? Today, some number of tons of CO2 are emitted from Newton's streets every day. Is the goal to reduce that number?

Or, are we trying to maximize Newton's contribution to carbon reduction efforts regionally or, dare we say it, globally?

This is not a trivial question. If the goal is to reduce Newton's carbon output, we'll want to encourage current residents to drive less, a noble and appropriate effort. But, adding residents to the city will inevitably offset any reduction achieved and will probably increase Newton's CO2 output.

But, adding residents to Newton, especially around our transit hubs, would be one of the most environmentally effective things the city could do. Residents who live near transit are likely to produce less carbon than the average Newton resident, lowering our per-person CO2 output. And, residents who live near transit in Newton are likely to produce less carbon than they would living elsewhere in the Boston metro area.

So, what's the measure of our goal?


Nathan Phillips said...

From the US Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2010 (

"Transportation activities accounted for 32 percent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2008. Virtually all of the energy consumed in this end-use sector came from petroleum products. Nearly 53 percent of the emissions resulted from gasoline consumption for personal vehicle use."

Newton has made huge strides on building energy with the stretch code, but basically zero attention to the transportation sector. So this is great news to hear Mayor Warren is turning attention to transportation emissions reductions. There are such a diversity of approaches, that I like to think of the 'wedge' approach - a little bit of this (e.g. bike/ped promotion); a little bit of that (more zipcars; or priority parking for low or zero carbon vehicles).

Stephanie Pollack said...

The correct measure, it seems to me, is reducing the per-person greenhouse gas footprint of Newton residents, precisely because of the reality that Newtonians have a lower carbon footprint from transportation than those who live in more auto-dependent parts of the region. Indeed, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has great data on VMT and GHG emissions of residents of different cities and towns in Massachusetts which illustrates how concentrating new homes that will be built in the coming decades into lower-VMT communities in the Boston inner core (like Newton) can contribute to meeting the state's GHG emission reduction goals. For this reason, the climate action leadership group convened by Boston mayor Tom Menino (on which I served) specifically called for directing residential growth toward Boston and the inner core in order to reduce the region's carbon footprint.

dr2chase said...

Stephanie, can you provide a link? Quick Googling was not helpful enough.

One problem with adding homes within 128 is that (at least some) communities perceive a financial disadvantage from doing so. I live in Belmont, I'm pretty sure our VMT/resident is pretty good (numbers I saw said we disproportionately work nearby, disproportionately take transit -- assuming I read them right). HOWEVER, because the town gets most of its money from property taxes, and because we have little development, approximately nobody wants to add people, because people cost money for services. And if we must add people, we want them to move into expensive houses with high taxes. This is contrary to the goal of adding people inside of 128.

So, though I heartily agree with the goal, as a town meeting member who also has an eye on property tax bills and tight town and school budgets, I can't support it until there is some other way to pay for
"stuff" (perhaps a robust, steady stream of local aid, that did not dry up in a downturn?). I'm gung-ho to get the people we've already got into smaller cars, on bikes, on mass transit, and walking -- because I believe that is almost all win (more exercise, less noise, less danger, more community, less cost) -- but adding people (especially in so-called affordable housing) is problematic, because of the cost of services.

Steve R said...


Thanks for your trenchant observations. Isn't it interesting that something as seemingly unrelated to CO2 reduction as property tax collection and expenditure patterns (such as the classic use of property tax to pay for schools) is actually closely connected? Historical accident, certainly (using property tax to pay for schools predates automobiles, I'm pretty sure), but it has certainly played a part in fuel-intensive development patterns.

At this point, I think there's a consensus that dense cities are far more environmentally friendly than the spread-out suburbs (both because of transportation and heating/cooling costs), but tax structures still favor the spread-out suburbs.

If adding more people threatens to worsen the tax-to-services ratio, then perhaps density of residences needs to be matched by growth in businesses. Hey, isn't that called "Smart Growth"?

dr2chase said...

Almost everyone in town is agreed that we need more commercial development, which given our density and location would be de facto smart growth, but almost nobody is agreed on whose backyard that development should abut.

Most amusingly, the one set of abutters where development has recently been welcomed, welcomed the development because it would shield the abutters from a potential bike path. Google is not our friend here, because once upon a time, someone, somewhere, committed a heinous crime on a bike path, and knowledge of that single incident is very scary.