ZeroCarbonMA’s Road To Decarbonization

ZeroCarbonMA’s Road To Decarbonization

“We know we need to electrify as quickly as possible,” Lisa Cunningham declared during MassEnergize’s Community of Practice meeting in January, “and our mission at ZeroCarbonMA is to facilitate that by building the political infrastructure to get us to that goal.” Cunningham is a co-founder of ZeroCarbonMA, an organization that develops electrification legislation for communities in the Boston area, as well as at the State level and beyond.

In the fall of 2019, the team originally introduced and then passed a bylaw in Brookline regulating fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction (Warrant Article 21), which became the first natural gas ban outside of California and the first in a cold weather climate. Though the bylaw was later disallowed by the Massachusetts Attorney General, Brookline pivoted to another legal strategy of passing the Home Rule Petition asking the State Legislature to allow them to implement their fossil-fuel-free bylaws. This strategy was successfully followed by other towns, including Arlington, Lexington, Acton, and Concord, as part of the work of the Building Electrification Accelerator program, an eight-month accelerator that began with 15 towns and cities.

This strategy spread to other towns and cities  – including Cambridge, Newton, Lincoln, West Tisbury, and Aquinnah  – who followed in the footsteps of Brookline, eventually leading to the inclusion of a ten community pilot program in the 2022 climate bill.  Shortly after the signing of this bill, Boston, Somerville, Salem, and Northampton also passed Home Rule Petitions, bringing the total of the State’s population who have taken this action close to 20% .

Within their broader goal of decarbonizing Massachusetts, ZeroCarbonMA has been pushing for the adoption of the newly established Specialized Energy Code for construction. According to Cunningham, the Specialized Code will protect communities from future costs of retrofitting buildings to all-electric, as well as reduce operational costs of heating and cooling buildings. ZeroCarbonMA believes that the Specialized Code will further the use of solar technology and improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings. Unlike the Stretch code, which is automatically adopted by all 300 communities designated as “green communities”, in the Specialized Code needs to be passed by a Town Meeting, city council, or signed into law by a mayor, a process that has already started in many communities throughout the State.

In January’s MassEnergize Community of Practice meeting, Cunningham was joined by Wendy Stahl, a ZeroCarbonMA board member and a standing member of the Zero Admissions Advisory Board (Z.E.A.B.), a newly established climate board in Brookline. In late November, ZEAB. proposed six warrant articles to  Town Meeting, which ended in partial success – four of those articles passed, while the remaining two narrowly did not.

The four articles that passed consisted of supporting electrification efforts, establishing a methane tax, low-interest municipal loans for electrification, and asking for permission to supersede building codes to reduce carbon emissions. “Very ambitious! Turns out we were too ambitious,” Stahl jokes.

Both Cunningham and Stahl recommend communities bring their proposals to local town meetings, stating that mass adoption is needed for a clean future. There is still work to be done that requires more community involvement around the State. MassEnergize and its member communities are doing precisely this – helping residents organize to accelerate a zero-carbon future. Collectively we are demonstrating how far grassroots movements can go.

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