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Amy Longsworth joined the Boston Green Ribbon Commission as director in May 2015, after many years as a corporate sustainability strategy consultant, most recently with PricewaterhouseCoopers. In her role as director, she works with member organizations and other partners from across Boston’s business, philanthropic, and public sectors to help the City implement its Climate Action Plan.
Lindsay Gearheart: Could you tell me about your background and how you got involved with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission?
Amy Longsworth: I’ve been involved in environmental work in one way or another for my whole career. Sometimes I think, how sad that we haven’t solved it all somewhere along the way during 40 years in the trenches. It’s been interesting to work in the nonprofit sector with an organization like the Nature Conservancy and then to go into the for-profit sector and do work inside some very large global corporations, seeing companies and brands waking up to the slow dawning of the idea that we can save some money and do things more strategically and efficiently. Then to be able to work so closely now with the City of Boston — I’m not technically in the public sector, because I’m working with the Green Ribbon Commission, but we work so very closely with them that it has been really interesting to see things from the public sector point of view.
I have an English degree from Wesleyan and MBA from Harvard and I think those two sides of my brain well represent what I bring to the table: big picture, good judgement, but also an aspect of storytelling. That’s really important because it’s moving quickly. The field of climate is extremely technical and yet we need masses of people to get with the program in the sense of persuading their political leaders, accepting there will be changes to their lifestyles, and collectively visioning a better, different, healthier, and cleaner future. I think being able to do that is just as important as the scientists that are working on what we can learn from the Arctic ice cores and the carbon sequestration, and all of the other very important scientific analysis and technological advancements being made. We need to bring people along.
LG: Could you tell me a bit more about the Green Ribbon Commission itself?
AL: The Green Ribbon Commission, led by John Cleveland, is made up of 35 mostly private sector leaders. The Mayor himself is the co-chair, and we have Kathleen Theoharides, who’s the Secretary of Energy and Environment for Massachusetts. We have leaders of hospitals, universities, commercial real estate, and more. We now also have more than 40 cultural institutions in our cohort. These institutions, businesses, nonprofits, and philanthropies are coming together to help the City by taking their own actions, modeling it for others in their sectors, and supporting Mayor Walsh, Boston’s Chief of Environment Chris Cook, and others when they need it.
A lot of cities have councils of various types, private sector partners, chambers of business. We are specifically focused on climate. John Cleveland and I are getting inquiries from different cities and even different countries asking how this works, saying they want to have the same model. I think it’s unique to Boston, and I think it’s a really healthy partnership that I hope we’ll be able to continue. We’ll come out of this COVID-19 situation, and climate change is still going to be a problem. We can get all distracted for a year, and everything is really nightmarish at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the nightmare of climate change won’t still be sitting there staring us in the face when we get back to normal.
LG: How much of the impacts and the vulnerabilities of climate change in Boston are already known?
AL: In Boston, on one hand, we’re not lucky because we are a coastal city so we’re vulnerable. On the other hand, we have a lot of research capacity and predictive capacity. For the public, you can go to Climate Ready Boston on the Boston.gov website for a lot of this information. The foundation for that work started with a group called the Boston Research Advisory Group. This was a group of MA schools who got together with hydrologists and climate scientists to take all of the known data sets and analyses and do a study putting the data under three different future predictions of carbon emissions. They looked very closely at the implications for Boston and Boston Harbor, asking: How high will the water get? Where will it come in? They also looked at freshwater flooding caused by rain events, sewer problems if the sanitary lines get overrun, sea level rise exacerbated by storms, and excessive heat in a city that has starkly not been air conditioned. Those are the key things that Boston is facing.
We actually know within a particular range of uncertainty what is likely to happen. Of course, the emissions make a difference because the more carbon we put into the atmosphere, the more extreme the negative feedback loop will occur. The reason all of that is important is because it allows us to plan and take the next step, which the City is now doing with help from the Green Ribbon Commission. The City now has neighborhood analyses for East Boston, South Boston, Seaport, and Downtown to begin to figure out what to do. We have a little bit of time, but not a lot of time. Some solutions may start being put into place by the 2023-2025 timeframe.
LG: Could you speak a bit about Boston’s Climate Action Plan? What are the big goals there and the primary ways Boston is going about achieving them?
AL: The current Climate Action Plan focuses mostly on carbon. When the 2019 Climate Action Plan update came out, because a lot of the resilience work had already been done, the plan primarily focused on carbon mitigation. In other words, how do we reduce carbon emissions in the City of Boston and how do we reach the Mayor’s goal of carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner?
It’s a great plan in several important respects. One is that it preceded by and based upon the Carbon Free Boston report, which the Green Ribbon Commision did with Boston University researchers. That report is a blueprint for what we have to do across the different carbon-emitting sectors to get to carbon neutrality, and it looks at what those carbon-emitting sectors are. First and foremost, it’s existing buildings and some anticipated new buildings. Eighty-five percent of the buildings that are projected to exist in Boston in 2050 already exist today. Buildings are roughly two-thirds of our problem, transportation is roughly one-third of our problem, and then waste is about five percent. Then we also have the energy supply. There is an idea that if we can electrify our thermal sources, our heating mostly, then we can ride the grid down and get closer to carbon neutral. But the existing buildings are a big challenge. In a way, they are a bigger challenge than transportation.
With transportation, we have electric vehicles, but we need to get people to buy them and get infrastructure set up. I’m not saying any of that is easy, but it feels more doable then going around to the 86,000 individual buildings we have in Boston and saying we’re going to make you much more energy efficient, we’re going to find renewable sources of fuel, and we’re going to electrify — which is completely different than how most of them are currently heated. That’s a big piece of what we are trying to help the city work on.
Most of the carbon emissions that were identified in the Carbon Free Boston Report that are coming from transportation are people commuting in and out of the city. For the report, they said that Boston takes responsibility for half of those emissions for any trips that originate in Boston. It’s an issue that Bostonians bear because of the horrendous traffic that we have and also carbon, and yet a lot of those folks aren’t Boston residents. The City Council can’t just wave a magic wand and fix that; that’s obviously a regional issue. The Transportation and Climate Initiative, TCI, is one regional solution that the Governor is leading on to put a cap on carbon emissions for automobiles the same way we now have it for energy. This would hopefully encourage people to drive less or switch to electric vehicles or switch to public transportation because there would be some upward pressure on gas prices in theory.
LG: You mentioned before the plans for the various Boston neighborhoods. How can Boston decarbonize in an intentional way that is inclusive of socially vulnerable populations?
AL: That is really a question on everyone’s minds. It’s not only how can we become carbon neutral, which is an enormous question in itself, but how do we do it in a way that doesn’t exacerbate existing and historical inequities? When the Green Ribbon Commission did the Carbon Free Boston report at the request of Mayor Walsh, it was around 130 pages of a lot of deep technical analysis. We then went back and wrote a second report exactly on this topic: How do we do this in an equitable way? It’s something the City really cares about, and I’m not just saying that because that’s their party line, but having worked as closely as I do with individual people at Environment, Energy & Open Space (EEOS), I know this to be the case.
So, it starts with principles. Inclusivity is the key idea. Not doing things to neighborhoods, but doing things with neighborhoods that are based on the right of everyone to participate, providing a seat at the table, a role in the design of policies and implementation, adequate information, and transparent decision making. All of those elements need to be the foundation. The City is doing fairly high-level neighborhood plans at this point that involve identifying areas of greater vulnerability and talking to people about what they would like to see.
There’s also the whole question of making buildings more efficient. What do you do with multi-family affordable housing? How do you work on a building in a way that isn’t disruptive to the families who live there? If you go to the report, you can see that especially vulnerable populations have been mapped. The neighborhoods have all been mapped to show each kind of socially vulnerable person and where they cluster.
This brings me to the question of health. People think about climate in Boston and think of how the water will be high along the Harborwalk. But actually, heat, especially for people who are older or sick, is a major issue. The reason I keep dwelling on heat is that that is something that’s already here. That doesn’t require a storm or high tide. Our summers are already getting hotter. Within the next 30 years, our Boston summers will become more like those of Washington, DC, and eventually like those of Mobile, Alabama. We’re definitely getting hotter, and we must figure out how to provide air conditioning, which of course in turn puts a demand on energy and the electric grid, which will already have more demands placed on it because of hopes that we can electrify more of the building stock… you can begin to see how intertwined it all is. The healthcare costs are real, and they’re stressing the system already.
There is a very strong moral imperative voice coming from the healthcare sector and it flows through to their interest in reducing their carbon and energy use, partly for cost-saving reasons, because every dollar they can save on paying the electric bill they can put it more towards healthcare, and also because their business is to care for people. They slowly broadened that from caring for someone’s tonsils or infected finger to caring for the whole person, which means caring for the environment. Those two things are intertwined. Healthcare Without Harm, with whom we work very closely, is a leader on all of this. Now the doctors and nurses, the actual staff, are among the most vocal and articulate people.
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